For several years now I’ve been in the practice of culling images from catalogs I get in the mail (Patagonia, REI, Filson, etc.) and occasional magazines. I pull them out, then I slip them into plastic page protectors that go into three ring binders that I save as inspiration for both artistic and lifestyle aspirations. It’s like an analog pinterest board of sorts that no one gets to see but ME. Anyway today, in an effort to rest my brain from Trump news for a couple hours, I decided to catch up on a stack that had built up over several months. This image, from a Filson catalog, I love. It reminds me of my favorite book by Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. I know most people point at Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke as his best, but I’ll take Train Dreams any day.
Aside from some airport and rental car shuttles, public transit (Chicago, San Francisco), and of course the Monorail in Seattle that connects the Seattle Center with downtown (it’s been years — is it even still there?), I’ve never traveled by train before. I want to. I did take a two hour round trip across Panama in 2011, but that doesn’t qualify either, though it was one of the more enjoyable outings we took on that vacation. No, I’m talking something more epic. Something coastal, or continent spanning. Go to bed in one country and wake up rattling across its neighbor’s countryside the next morning. That kind of thing. Days spent staring out the window, or reading, or writing, or sleeping. A private sleeping car for shiftless sleep-ins and spontaneous afternoon canoodlings. I’m certain I would love it.
I’ve been thinking of trains a lot lately. My friend Owen is not only a great writer but has also become quite a skilled photographer of trains, as seen via his Instagram feed, and the images fire my imagination. I spent a day listening to the hobo songs of Jimmy Rodgers, as performed by Merle Haggard. But what really grabbed me is a two poem series by the writer Robert Michael Pyle about Amtrak, from his collection Chinook & Chanterelle. The final stanza of the second poem is this:
Trips like this, I wish life
could be a little more like Amtrak: usually
on its rails all right, and often a little slower
than we thought we wanted to go.
Isn’t that wonderful?
I wish I could say I’m surprised this morning, but I’m not. Really not at all. Disappointed, yes. But certainly not surprised. Here is the late Joe Bageant talking about his book Deer Hunting with Jesus. I wish everyone would read it. He nailed it years ago, and it’s still true today.
Most of us live in these little bubbles of our own making, where we insulate ourselves with people who think like we do. Particularly in Missoula, which is a tiny Blue oasis in a seething desert of angry Red, it can seem like everyone is suitably progressive. We laugh and drink our fancy beer and enjoy our hip clothes and our coffee and our farmers’ markets, until it comes time to leave those comfortable environs. Because out of town it’s a different story, and we all tend to roll up the windows of our Subarus, crank up the AC, and just get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
In the nine mile drive I make between my house and town every day, I don’t recall a single Hillary sign. Or a pro-Democratic candidate sign, period. It’s all Republican. Take any of the blue highways and frontage roads around the interstate and it’s the same thing. That’s the reality of Montana, and it’s a kind of little microcosm for the country as a whole. None of these folks care about endorsements from the likes of the New Yorker or the New York Times, or any of those sources that made so many seem to feel Clinton’s victory was guaranteed. Rural folk feel abandoned, and they are likely to vote for the candidate who seems most interested in smashing the status quo.
Trump didn’t win, he merely received what was handed to him. The Democrats lost this election long ago. They have become every bit as much a part of the moneyed elite as the Republicans, they just go about it differently. We have accomplished some great things socially under Obama, some truly necessary things. But I wonder how much of that is a calculated smokescreen to keep us on the Left appeased? Meanwhile the gulf widens between the haves and the have nots. My health insurance – even with its sky high deductible – literally became unaffordable overnight last week and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably die young(ish), heh. Climate change continues to be something we don’t discuss at the highest levels of political discourse, and I blame Obama largely for that for not steering the conversation vigorously the past eight years. Where has he been on Standing Rock? Where was Hillary? What about public land being turned over to private interests? Continued war? Obama has been no dove, and Hillary certainly isn’t. All of these concerns, the ones I hold most dear, were things I was going to have to be angry about and fight for even in a Clinton presidency. For me, not a lot has changed all that much. It all just has an uglier face on it.
It doesn’t mean I’m not sad, though. Sad for my women friends, sad for my friends of other races and cultures. Sad for how this country looks to the rest of the world today. But it’s where we are. It’s like checking my bank balance. I don’t like looking at it. But I have to now and then to be reminded I need to fucking work harder.
Monday night at Beargrass we had just finished dinner and folks were drifting from the dining area to the main room where readings were held. My friend Richard Fifield, author of the excellent debut novel Flood Girls, was to be reading soon. A wind had come up outside, and though the sky visible from the back of the lodge was still only broken with clouds, it was growing darker, and the trees in the yard and down the hill were beginning to sway with some vigor.
I joined a couple friends on the covered porch out back. Rain was just barely starting to fall. There is a ten-foot or so span of grass that separates the main grounds from the hill that slopes away down to the Blackfoot River. I stepped about midway out into it to look up at the sky to see what the clouds were doing.
I turned just as the tall pine tree to the right in that photo was struck by lightning. It was maybe forty or fifty feet away and down the slight slope. I’ve never experienced anything like it for violence and power. I can close my eyes and see the forks of the strike envelope the tree; bark explodes, light and colors and sounds and heat blow against me. The hairs of my arms stood on end, my mouth and teeth had that kind of weird electric taste to them, and smoke billowed all around the tree.
The other two recoiled; I just sort of stood there, oddly calm, but I think I was stunned a little because I was surprised when the other people from all around the lodge and ranch area came running. Folks clear on the other side of the building were in awe of what they saw, and they weren’t anywhere near the point of impact. Most startling was the utter lack of warning. The storm seemed to come out of nowhere, and I don’t recall hearing any distant thunder or anything at its approach. One minute it was windy, and just starting to rain, and the next, BOOM!
The storm passed quickly, and we went down to look at the tree. Several scars twisted all around it. A single split ran from the base all the way up to the top, spiraling around the tree’s diameter. Pieces of blackened bark were scattered all about, as were strips of scorched inner bark. I almost didn’t believe that that tree, so close, was the one that had actually been struck until we all went and looked at it.
The next morning I took some photos. They probably aren’t as interesting to anyone who wasn’t there, but for the rest of us, it was an unforgettable experience.
I originally, in my laziness, tried posting this as a photo album on Facebook. But that engine somehow reduced the size and quality of the images, so I dumped it. Anyway, here are a few shots from the Beargrass Writing Retreat, which I attended over this past weekend. It was awesome.