A Rapid Dash to Glacier

It’s not often we get three-day weekends together, and Julia and I didn’t really have anything special planned for this one. Selling her Donkey Girl stuff at the Saturday Market every week has taken a lot of mobility out of our summer, but it’s been for a good cause. So we decided Saturday afternoon that we would get up very early Sunday and drive up to Glacier National Park for the day. So that’s what we did! It’s only about 2.5 hours or so to get there, and the drive is just gorgeous pretty much all the way there, as the highway curves around the magnificent Flathead Lake.

We were on the road by 6 AM (on a Sunday?!), headed north. We hoped to get there early enough to see some wildlife. It promised to be a sunny day, as the morning was gorgeous, particularly as the sun was rising behind the Mission Mountains. We didn’t stop, but got into the park and headed straight up the Going to the Sun Road to the visitor’s center at Logan Pass. That road is quite a climb, with breathtaking views and vertigo-inducing depths over the edge of the very curvy, very narrow road.

They have these old restored shuttles you can actually ride in if you want; they leave from various campgrounds and visitor centers along the way up. One of these times I’d like to do that. They are pretty cool, and run on propane.

From the parking lot at the top we spied our first critters — several bighorn sheep were sunning themselves on the slopes not far away. I was able to zoom my camera in for a couple decent shots.

There was a bit of a wind, and it was chilly — I doubt it was even 40 degrees. Clouds were gathering and we weren’t really geared up for much of a hike, but we decided to set out along the Highline Trail anyway, just until we decided to turn around.

In the grasses bordering the trailhead there were a bunch of these little fellas dashing about and chowing down. Pretty sure this little bastard is a Columbian Ground Squirrel.

The clouds were rolling in, and the sun disappeared.

We had jackets, and I had my trail running shoes on, but Julia was in jeans and some Chuck Taylor knockoffs; not the best hiking gear. Game as always, though, she kept right on going and didn’t complain a single time, even when we had to cross watery stretches along the trail.

We saw several mountain goats as well, quite a distance up slope, and too far even for my camera’s zoom. We had binoculars with us, so we still got to check them out.

Before long the sleet was coming down pretty heavy. Parts of the trail have a good drop off the side; one stretch even has a cable anchored to the rock wall to hang onto if one needs to. I was negotiating down a little stair-like arrangement of rocks, looking up the path of some water for more wildlife, when a misstep landed me on my ass. My catlike reflexes saved me from falling over the cliff, though, and if Julia pointed and laughed she did so without me seeing it (lucky for her). I bonked my elbow pretty good; a lesser man would have lost the use of his arm, no doubt about it.

The sun came out in spots, then would disappear again. At times we could just barely see the surrounding peaks. It was a little eery, but also very cool.

There were quite a number of other folks out on the trail. Many of them were geared up for extensive backcountry hiking and camping, it appeared. Julia and I probably looked like the Clampetts out there. Then again, my jacket displayed the Patagonia logo, so maybe not. You know what’s kind of pathetic? I realized as I was thinking about it I was wearing Patagonia shoes, socks, chonies, shorts, and jacket. And a hat, but I’d left that in the truck. Hey, what can I say, I like their stuff and it lasts a long time. And before you even think about getting all lippy with me about being some kind of Patagonia fag, keep in mind that it is a Patagonia hat very similar to mine that Sylvester Stallone is wearing during a significant stretch of The Expendables.

So if you have a problem with my friggin’ gear choices, take it up with Sly, you dig?

All in all, we did maybe a modest three or four miles. We got back a little wet and chilled, and it was snowing/sleeting pretty hard — all the surroundings were covered with white. It was still a lot of fun, and we wonder why, given it’s so close, we don’t visit more often. We will certainly rectify that.

I hope everyone had a chance to have some fun and get some fresh air over the Labor Day Weekend as well!

The Big Picture

Boston.com has this section of their website called The Big Picture that has just some phenomenal photography. I stumbled across it during the World Cup.

Recently they had a collection from The Festival of San Fermin, 2010, in Spain. That’s where they do the whole “running of the bulls” thing. Not all of the images are for the squeamish, but it’s still fantastic photography. Here are a couple images (remember to click to see them bigger!):

The most recent collection is called Stormy Skies. Here are a couple of those images:

I could spend hours looking at this stuff. HERE is a list of everything that has been posted in July. I’m in awe of this art form.

Springs Comes — Finally!

A week ago today I was out driving and walking around Missoula taking photographs for the Crumley piece I did. It was gray, and damp, and with the wind blowing it was downright cold out. That all changed this weekend with the arrival of sunshine and 70+ degree weather. It was glorious! So we kind of scrapped all other plans and spent some extra time outdoors.

Bass Creek Trail

Saturday we drove down just south of Florence and did a little hiking along the Bass Creek Trail. We got a late start, but it still felt great to get out and stretch the legs in the sunshine. Ravalli County Search and Rescue had a bunch of stuff set up at the trail head. There was training going on for potential EMTs.

A guy we spoke to explained the various things they would be doing, including a simulated “catastrophic event” which would be held late that night that would see them out there until about 2 or 3 AM.

The lower part of the trail was cool and shady, running along Bass Creek.

The cliffs to are right were beautiful. I like the variations in landscape of the various hikes we go on, all within about 30 minutes of home.

A snake bolted across our path!

As we gained elevation the trail was covered with snow and ice. Going up wasn’t so bad, but coming down was an exercise in not-falling-on-your-ass. Julia did wipe out once. I pointed and laughed. We survived though. Even did this self portrait where we turned around a couple three miles up. Good thing we stood in the brightest possible sunshine possible too to totally wash out the image. We’re smart that way, and I’m such a genius photographer.

Waterworks Hill

Sunday before we got started on other projects and errands we hiked up Waterworks Hill, which is on the north side of Missoula. All my years living here and I’d never been up there before. It provides a nice view of Missoula. I really need to learn how to use my camera better in bright sunlight — it was really a much more spectacular day than these images show.

This is the site of the old peace sign that used to be here, and was visible from the valley below. It was quite a landmark, but I think someone bought the property and tore it down or something.

We returned through a little canyon called Cherry Gulch. With all the birds chirping and other folks out enjoying the weather, it was quite an invigorating, if short, outing.

It was good to get out, soak up some rays and make other plans for getting out this summer. We’re looking forward to it!

Detectives Around the World — The Montana of James Crumley

I mentioned a couple days ago that this week I am participating in a project initiated by Ohio blogger, interviewer and book reviewer Jen Forbus called Detectives Around the World. The subject of my contribution is James Crumley, my home town’s famous resident crime writer who died just over 18 months ago in the hospital where I was born. This little essay isn’t a profile of the man — a simple Google or Wikipedia search will give you plenty of information about him — but instead a commentary on how the environment of Montana shaped and influenced the characters and stories of his detective fiction. Besides, if you really want to know Crumley, you should get off the computer and go track down his novels. I was a spectator at a panel discussion during the Montana Festival of the Book last year where a panel of four great writers — Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and James Grady — extolled the influence of Crumley via the questions posed by moderator Michael Koepf concerning Crumley’s classic, The Last Good Kiss. His influence on this batch of writers — some of the best in the business — as well as other names like Michael Connelly and Duane Swierczynski cannot be understated.

The opening line of The Right Madness begins:

It was a lovely, calm Montana summer evening, a Saturday night after a long weekend of softball. The full moon rose blazing over Mount Sentinel, outlining the maw of the Hellgate Canyon with silver fire.

This is a shot from Broadway Avenue, looking east into the very maw of Hellgate Canyon, which curves to the left between the two hillsides you can see in the distance, on a cold Sunday morning in April when the wind that whips through that land form will chill you to the bone.

It’s called Hellgate because the Blackfeet Indians, the only tribe to force the Lewis & Clark expedition to fire their weapons in defense, used to waylay travelers that passed through the canyon.

As for Mount Sentinel, it looms over the city of Missoula, the big “M” on its face calling attention to the University of Montana.

A trail will take you about halfway up the face of the mountain to the “M” itself, providing views of the city below.

You can even go all the way to the top of the mountain, with gorgeous views north and east.

Montana is a rugged place. Cold in winter, hot in summer, with lots of space to lose yourself in. Driving is a way of life out here, over roads and highways that offer myriad paths to destruction if one doesn’t remain alert.

This is the world Crumley’s characters live in. So often in crime novels we find ourselves as readers in urban environments — big cities like New York or Los Angeles. Crumley’s books aren’t like that. They tell the stories of characters not just on the fringes of that kind of life, but way out on the hinterlands. They embody a character associated so often with the West — the hardy soul with a checkered past just trying to live below the radar. They live in a world populated by dingy bars, pawn shops and bail bondsmen.

They inhabit scuzzy motel rooms, drinking themselves to oblivion and filling their bodies with drugs that only deepen the sorrow when the high wears off.

Crumley’s literary tour through Montana is a road trip with two similar, yet very different, detectives, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue. Their stories are told in individual novels, yet they team up in the novel Bordersnakes. Where Milo is generally viewed as the kinder and gentler of the two, neither man is one to shy from violence. In more than one interview Crumley described Milo as the good side of his own personality, and Sughrue the bad. He could write their world because it was the world he often lived in, and it was the world that surrounded him in his home in Missoula, where all of these city photos were taken.


Missoula is a beautiful, progressive city, but maintains an odd cross-section of archetypes. Hippies sit shoulder to shoulder with salty old ranchers at any given diner in town. It is a liberal oasis in an otherwise conservative state. Downtown is a vibrant and happening area, unlike many cities in America, even as we grapple with a significant homeless population.

Crumley writes this environment with authority, touching on themes like the opposing ethics of environmentalists squaring off with independent-minded locals who think nothing of poaching an elk off their own property via the tried-and-true method of the salt lick and spotlight. He writes about the troubled, the underbelly, and the distances people go to obtain whatever their given vice might be. Crumley himself was bedeviled by his vices, which ultimately sapped his health and claimed his life.

The closest thing you will find to a sign indicating you have found his favorite bar are the initials on the front door to Charlie B’s.

It’s right across the street from another Missoula landmark, the venerable Oxford.

The walls inside Charlie’s are lined with great portraits, and when I visited on a Sunday afternoon it was populated by a mostly older crowd. By evening, especially on weekends, the room is taken over by college kids and hipsters.

I immediately struck up a conversation with a couple old retired guys, and soon we were talking like old friends. One of the local homeless women came in and was accosted by the bartender. Apparently she’d already been thrown out just before I arrived for going to each customer and offering blowjobs for as little as $6. To me, that scene was as Crumleyesque as anything I could hope to witness.

Crumley’s passing is a sad one. His presence in Missoula, and in literature, is greatly missed. I regret never having met the man, though he was pointed out to me one time crossing Higgins Avenue downtown. Sadly, much of what made Montana the last bastion of the lost has passed as well. People move in from out of state and change the culture. House prices go up and force the old salts out. The logging industry that was such a crucial part of the economic fabric is extinct; two major mills at opposite ends of the valley, including one where my father worked for more than 43 years, have closed down to the tune of hundreds of jobs lost. While this environment remains ripe for the kinds of stories Crumley’s characters would be embroiled in — the desperate trying to survive by whatever means they deem necessary — it still feels vastly different as parts of the city morph into the big box hell that so much of America is becoming. Nonetheless, the old rebellious spirit raises its head in strange places. Like in the shed-like bar 15 minutes east of town that refuses to acknowledge the statewide smoking ban.

I think Crumley would be proud.

Prowling the Birthplace of Jim Thompson

Tuesday morning I arrived bright and early at the customer site I was visiting in Oklahoma City. It was cloudy, rainy and cool the entire time I was there . . . but, given it was about 50 degrees warmer than it had been in Missoula when I left, I was quite comfortable.

I have to say someone screwed the pooch when it came to scheduling me out here. Long story short, I was back out of there again by noon, and had rescheduled my flight home for Wednesday morning instead of Thursday. Of the options I’d identified for entertainment purposes, I decided to visit Anadarko, the birthplace of the legendary Jim Thompson. Thompson, as we know, was a writer of awesomely dark, psychotic, noir crime fiction who died in 1977. So I slipped into something more comfortable, grabbed a flask of whiskey and a pistol, and away I went.

I’m kidding about the flask. And the pistol. The only weapon I carried, in fact . . . was myself.

It was only a little more than an hour of driving and I was pulling into town.

This was a spur of the moment thing. I don’t know much about Jim Thompson, and less about the town he was born. I knew he was born in 1906, which was the year before Oklahoma even became a state. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like then — that isn’t all that far removed from what we commonly think of as the Old West.

These days, given Indians comprise a near population majority, there are many businesses with an “Indian theme” as it relates to their naming conventions. For example, one of the first places I passed (after the Kiowa Housing Authority) was a strip mall called “Warrior Valley Plaza.”

I don’t think there is a strip mall in existence that isn’t butt ugly. This one was as ugly as any I’ve ever seen.

     

In fact, the only businesses that seemed to be operating out of the place were the regional office of the BIA and the local adult learning center.

     

As I drove around, there wasn’t much traffic, and not too many people out on the street.

I was getting rather depressed. The town just seemed to be falling down. Many of the homes, obviously being lived in, were run down. Other buildings looked half demolished, and many signs were mostly destroyed.

     

What it most reminded me of, in fact, was Indianola, Florida, a small town on the Atlantic Coast I’d worked in three or four times over the course of implementing a project a few years ago. I’d been there a couple times, then went back a few months after it had been hit back-to-back by hurricanes, and it looked like hell (though it was damn ugly to begin with). Researching a little when I got back to the hotel, I learned that Andarko had indeed been pummelled by a tornado just a few months ago. That explained a lot of the destruction.

     

It doesn’t explain the overall vibe of the place, though. Many buildings were empty, or moved, like this decrepit Sonic Drive-in (Sonic started out in Shawnee, OK, in 1953 — coincidentally at the same time Jim Thompson’s career really took off with the publishing of books like After Dark, My Sweet and Savage Night, which followed in the wake of 1952’s The Evil Inside Me; all books I HIGHLY recommend, by the way)

     

Places like this move to new locations and leave their old sites to rot. It’s ugly and depressing. Not only that, but Sonic food is particularly awful.

I ventured downtown, hoping to find some cozy little diner that would serve me coffee and pie, just like a character out of a Thompson novel. I didn’t intend to beat or kill anyone immediately afterward, or go on a drunken bender, bag some dame, or even go on the lam, but I still thought it would be a nice touch. Unfortunately the downtown was pretty well dried up, just like the rest of the community.

     

I could have gone to a movie, if I’d wanted . . . though the name of the theater made me wonder about the owner. Nice thing was is I could have bonded my way out of jail afterward, apparently, if the necessity had come up.

There was no friendly little diner in sight, and I drove all around the multi-block core. I suspect there were chain restaurants out along one of the other highways that cut through town, wherever the fucking Wal Mart was, but I didn’t want any of that kind of shit. I wanted the heart of town, the old town, and I’d hoped to encounter some quiet little burgh like you see in ads about “real America” that run during political campaigns. Anadarko, obviously, didn’t fit the bill. And no one I spoke with — only a couple folks I encountered, mind you — had ever heard of Jim Thompson. I did find a Mexican restaurant to take lunch in, at least.

          

The food wasn’t that great. The Modelo was, however. The woman working there was interesting; her voice was like Roseanne Barr with a Mexican accent. She asked if I was a photographer, and what I thought of their town. “It not bad, pretty nice, huh?” she said. She has lived there 15 years, hailing originally from East L.A. I said it’s probably a little different living there, and she laughed loud, “Oh jyes, very very different!”

Rolling out of town, I drove around a little more. I passed the Apache Housing Authority as well, and rolled through a little neighborhood of weatherbeaten brick HUD houses. It was more depressing. The street sign seemed ironic to me, considering the Apache were forced into Oklahoma in the first place, then had “their lands” further taken away and divided up as excess.

     

I don’t know what I expected from my visit; it’s not like Jim Thompson is all that famous anyway, and the town of Anadarko in 2009 is light years different from the 1906 version (which existed shortly after the lands in the area were opened to settlement by whites). I skipped a couple Indian museums there because I knew they’d just piss me off. So the visit didn’t give me much insight into the life that might have inspired Thompson to write the stories he did, but certainly showed me how a life in a town like this might shape a modern noir writer. This is a side of America a lot of people don’t see, unless they live in the middle of it. I’m glad I visited.