Sunday, April 30, 2017

Philipsburg, Montana


I park in front of an unassuming bar on Broadway, with its red brick facade and neat blue paneled window frames. I step off the car and I’m greeted by the bar watchdog, a greyhound by the name of Jessie, who looks more like a mini antelope. I punch open the swinging art deco chrome doors, under the blinking neon sign. I’m met by the noisy and bustling scene inside and by the smell of wholesome home-cooking which wafts around the spacious, fluorescent-lit joint. It’s impossible to escape the incredible potpourri of sports memorabilia scattered around the bar’s green paneled walls. I sit at the end of the long wooden bar which bends into a small formica lunch-counter. Local Duck Dynasty lookalikes, on their umpteenth drink, wear their long hair under baseball caps and sport goatee beards as tasteless as their T-shirts. At one corner, some are trying their luck in the Keno and Poker video gambling machines. Others are drowning their sorrows at the bar. These larger than life characters all look like they just walked out of a casting for a new art-house movie. I get the impression that they all might as well have spent the last month here. Stuck to a barstool with a beer in one hand and a chaser in the other. Their aim to look as neglected as possible and to say as little as possible. The waitress can hardly keep up, rushing back and forth clanking her heels on the wooden plank floor. In one poor-lit corner of the bar is the “Hall of Fame”, a collection of pictures of old timers who have passed. I hop off my chair and head to take a closer look. There must be close to one hundred pictures hanging in the wall, each one with a small inscription or saying beneath the picture. “It’s not how fast you run or how strong you are, but how well you bounce”, it reads in one of the pictures. “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on”, reads another. “The measure of a man is when he does the right thing even if no one is watching.” I cannot smile in approval at this tribute to those who have gone. At the top of the “Hall of Fame” is the picture of a tall and lanky old man with azure blue eyes. A white shock of hair flattened beneath an Irish cloth cap and a mischievous grin on his face. I take a closer look at the inscription underneath. “The car that brought me here doesn’t run anymore”. I cannot help but laugh at the use of a line, slightly changed, from “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” as a kind of epitaph. Looking around the bar, the atmosphere becomes contagious and the laughter is infectious. I might as well be stuck inside a Richard Hugo poem for all I care, so I linger for awhile. The car that brought me here still running for all I know. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Dillon, Montana


I’m driving south on Interstate 15. Butte’s famous Mile-High hill slowly disappears from view. The highway cleaves across Deer Lodge National Forest. Only the tops of the black skeletal mining gallows can be made out now. The vertiginous granite walls of the Rocky Mountains suddenly retreat into the horizon. New broad valleys and a flat landscape replace the snow-capped peaks. Farmlands scattered with copper-colored prairies. Lush mountain meadows line the highway’s boundaries. Herds of Black Angus and Hereford cattle graze on yellow sagebrush. Snow-fed mountain streams flow into the main rivers. The deserted highway trails its way deeper into the open countryside. Ranches and homesteads of all shapes and hues now come into view. Time appears to have stood still for these Western prairie dwellers. The Union Pacific Railroad runs a train, transporting fattened steer down its tracks. This is the only sound of life in a landscape otherwise completely engulfed in silence. I drive into a wide valley traversed by the Beaverhead River, filled with old ranches and brimming with trout, and arrive in the authentic old train town of Dillon. I park in front of The Metlen Hotel Bar & Café and step into the bar. Charles Marion Russell reproductions and stuffed trout adorn the green walls, weathered by decades of use.  A sign at the bar reads, “Work is the curse of the drinking class!”. The place is filled with locals, cowboys and your regular part-time professional barflies. In the back of the bar a silver disco ball eerily spins round, for no one, flashing its hypnotic light over the dance floor and the dark leather furniture dating from the 60’s. With the dull green lights hanging over two blue pool tables and the walls behind the counter crammed with fierce looking wild beasts it’s difficult not to compare the bar to the décor and ambience of a David Lynch film. A cowboy dressed in a fancy blue shirt, authentic cowboy boots and beaver felt hat talks with a colorful character sporting a ZZ Top beard and tattered hat about the best time in spring to wean calves from their mothers. An old timer with twinkling blue movie star eyes, hidden under a rather worn out cowboy hat taps his dirty knuckles against the bar counter to a Bob Wills song on the jukebox. Two young cowboys flirt with a much older heavily made-up waitress, inundated with breakfast orders, before putting their goatskin work gloves on and heading out the door. An extraordinary mix of characters that seems to reflect perfectly the kind of Anytown of the modern American West. That rugged self-reliant hard working can do attitude. I get a hot coffee, served with a dash of something a little stronger, at the recommendation of the bartender. It’s what everybody drinks in these parts to start the day and get ready for another’s day work. It’s called “an eye-opener”, he tells me. On my way out the door a sign reads “As long as there’s a sunset, there will always be a West…”. I fill the car up at the local gas station and get back on the road. I drive through acre upon acre of prairie as broad as it is flat, covered with sagebrush and longhorn cattle. Further into the farmlands ranch hands are leveling the ground and seeding. As I cross the Idaho/Utah border I keep my eyes fixed on the slowly setting sun on the far horizon out west. It seems to go on forever.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sidney, Montana


She woke up to the sound of a flail mower out by the pool area. She opened her eyes and looked at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. For a moment she couldn’t tell if it was 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. The sunshine peeking through the closed drape curtains gave her a clue. She lay there, looking at the strange shadows the sun was making on the walls, trying to guess which animal they resembled the most. She listened as a couple of young kids, maybe between 6 to 8-years old, she thought, were playing jump-rope outside. The alarm clock went off and the sound of Classic Country AM radio invaded the room. She leaped out of bed and into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. Patsy Cline was singing “I Fall to Pieces” on the radio. Her voice full of aching bravado and emotional drenched intensity. She looked in the mirror trying to convey the song into her life. She walked to the door and opened it letting the wind hit her face. The kids were now playing hide and seek. The boy was trying his best to hide behind an old oak tree and failing miserably. He motioned to her with his index finger not to divulge his hiding place to his older sister. She repeated the gesture and smiled playfully at him. The farm report replaced Patsy Cline on the alarm clock radio. The talk about future commodities and a significant drop on the prices of soybean and corn made her hungry. She dressed up and went straight into the coffee-shop, the glass door swinging shut behind her. The smell of greasy bacon and hot coffee was not strong enough to overtake the crude oil-stenched coveralls and the dirt-filled work boots smell. She found a corner booth at the end of the counter and sat down facing a young couple who were silently counting single dollar bills under the table. The waitress threw a menu on the table and poured some coffee and disappeared into the kitchen. She took a sip from her coffee cup and looked outside. The young siblings had stopped playing hide and seek and now the girl was lecturing the boy about something that brought tears to his eyes. The girl took the boy’s hand and led him to the coffee-shop. On TV, a group of four panelists were discussing the oil boom and how it was ready to bust out at the seams. That got the attention of the three oilfield workers sitting at the counter, each providing a different opinion on the subject. The young kids came running into the coffee-shop in the direction of the young couple who sprung to their feet in their direction when they saw the boy crying. They hugged the little boy as the little girl explained that he was almost hit by a car when he crossed the parking lot trying to find a good hiding place. The waitress placed an order of pancakes and a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup on her table and left the bill underneath the coffee cup. Outside, in the parking lot, the young couple and their kids were getting into their rusty Ford Taurus Station Wagon. The young boy holding a lollipop in one hand, her sister’s hand on the other. They drove off, a big trunk strapped to the hood of their station wagon. She finished her pancakes and cleared the tears off her cheeks as the waitress came back to refill her coffee cup. She stopped her by asking instead if they were hiring. The waitress took a long glance at her as if trying to understand if she had ever worked as a waitress. The oilfield workers left in a ruckus leaving a trail of dirt on the floor and oil stains on the counter. The waitress grinned at them and then gave them a broad smile when she saw the generous tip they had left her. On TV, two of the panelists agreed with the moderator that there were reasons to believe the boom was here to stay while the other two disagreed. The waitress came back from clearing the counter to ask if she knew how to use a broom. That night, back in her motel room, after a first day’s work, she began to unpack and fill the motel room with her mementos. Her favorite pair or earrings, a family heirloom. A worn-out paperback copy of Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia”. A small stuffed Teddy Bear. A framed picture of her 6-year old son on the nightstand. She sat on the recliner in silence facing the dark and empty parking lot. She closed her eyes and could still hear the two young kids playing outside. She decided to give herself the same chances of succeeding in this new town as the panelists on TV had given to the oil boom. Fifty-Fifty. That was good enough for her. She allowed herself to smile again. If ever so slightly.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Terry, Montana


He parked his beat-up pick-up truck in the stall directly in front of room 102. The sun was setting down on the prairie. A McDonald’s hamburger wrapper blew past his front window. Two teenage boys with ripped up Eric Church T-shirts and plaid khaki shorts were skating on the emptied disused swimming pool. He cut the engine off and got out into the parking lot. He stretched his back by holding his hands tightly together way over his head. He couldn’t believe he had been driving almost non-stop since early morning. He unloaded the bags off his black Ford and walked to the door of the motel room and opened it with the keycard. He stepped in and stood in silence in the doorframe without moving for a few moments. His eyes scanning the length of the room. Another bland middle of nowhere motel room. He started to hear her voice again. That kind of pinched upper-nasal sound. The high tension in her angry voice. He tried to put the last painful memory of them behind by bringing to mind her soft brown fuzzy hair and her icy-blue eyes. He remembered how it felt to be lost in those eyes. It shocked him that he could still feel that way about her, but now he couldn’t act on it. He felt wiped out, dizzy. He questioned his motives for driving half way across the country to get as far away from her as possible if the memories followed wherever he went. He decided he needed a drink. He threw his bags recklessly inside the room, closed the door behind him and got back in his pick-up. Her voice was still going on inside his head. The kind of breathless tone she uses to get her point across without being interrupted. The thought occurred to him that he was never able to get a word in edgewise when she got like this. It drained him emotionally to the point where he just forfeit these battles and let her have her way. He pulled into a gravel parking lot full of rusty old pick-ups and gooseneck trailers in front of a place called “Standing Rock Saloon & Casino” and cut his engine off. He just sat there for awhile and watched the approaching storm lights coming from all sides. Sitting behind the wheel. Trying to get her high-pitched angry voice out off his head. Watching the far away lightning. He got out of his Ford, locked the doors and went inside the bar as it threatened to start raining. The bar was nearly full with an assortment of cowboys and farmhands trying to bring some kind of excitement to the end of another workday. He kept one ear tuned to the news on TV as he hunted up and down for a place to sit. A video poker machine was blinking in one corner of the bar near the bathroom. An old cowboy kept slipping dollar bills into it until he ran out. He stepped up to the far end of the bar and found an empty seat. The news had switched to the weather. He ordered a Jim Beam and looked around trying to align himself somehow with the group of strangers that filled the bar in order to feel like he temporarily belonged somewhere. The two cowboys who sat next to him turned from their conversation about calves and replacement heifers to acknowledge his presence with a tip of their cowboy hats and then returned to their drinks. He sipped on his drink and starred over the rim of his glass at the many autographed framed pictures hanging on the walls. And there she was. Holding a Martin guitar, all dressed up in her best Patsy Montana outfit. Maybe eighteen-years old. It all came back to him and he realized he was in her hometown. In the exact same spot where she started singing. The small prairie town she had left behind for good more than twenty years ago and that she promised to never return to again. The irony didn’t escape him. He had driven this far away, from her memory, to be standing consciously or unconsciously where her discarded memories of what she used to be were. He paused and swirled the melting ice in his bourbon.  Without warning the thought that he had been reduced to nothing as far as she was concerned, a flicker of her imagination, just another sad song on her repertoire, flooded his mind. He smiled for some reason. He paid for his bourbon and stumbled out the door. Outside, in the parking lot, he starred across the empty road at the dark fields under a patchy drizzle. He couldn’t hear a thing except the wind in the prairie. A small dog in the distance. The definite silence of her voice echoing loudly in all directions.