The Weekend That Was – 8/31/2015

Random thoughts from the weekend that was….

  • Drove up to Polebridge Wednesday afternoon, our home away from home. Unless you’re living on another planet, you likely know that the West is essentially on fire. Leaving Missoula around 4:00 it was pretty smoky and gross, but 35 miles north in the Mission Valley it was even worse. Headed toward Glacier on Highway 93, we couldn’t even see the Mission Mountains through the smoke, and they rise up from the valley floor impressively just a couple miles to the east. By the time we got to Polebridge though, on the western edge of Glacier National Park, it wasn’t too bad. We settled in to the Goat Chalet, and all was right with the world. I want to live there with the weirdos and hippies and dirtbag through-hikers and all the other rabble that pass through there. We even have our lot all picked out for when our ship comes in and we check out.
  • Hanging out in the kitchen of the North Fork Hostel, as we are wont to do whenever we stay there, we had a little conversation with a young couple from Virginia Beach who were in the area hiking around Glacier. I admire them for that. The young woman urged her boyfriend to share an idea he had — he is a self-admitted “idea guy” — for the Appalachian Trail. He would like to restore a bunch of old Airstream trailers and locate them along that trail at specific intervals for hikers to rent to sleep in. I can’t think of a worse idea. Comfort and kitschy ease are the last thing these trails need. I think the AP could use a little more danger, like introducing some man-eating predators, to keep those people out there on their toes.
  • Even full of smoke, Glacier Park is gorgeous. Pictures from a drive up Going to the Sun Highway will be posted as soon as I pull them off my camera. Also, a picture of and the story of our friend Amie, whom we met last year at the hostel and was there again this year.
  • Coming back down out of the mountains (and back onto the grid) Friday night was a shock. It always is. They love Jesus in Kalispell and Columbia Falls. There must be eight or ten signs listing the ten commandments scattered throughout the area, and there is a big “Ten Commandments Park” as well. It freaks me out, man. There was a faction with boots on the ground we drove past too. A valley choked with smoke and enraged Christian freaks waving signs on street corners makes the Flathead even more frighteningly apocalyptic than usual.
  • I might have mentioned that Julia and I are in a contest at our Bikram Yoga studio. We had to go at least 3x/week all summer. At the end of the season, everyone left standing is entered into a drawing to win a free year. This week just completed was the second-to-last week, and we seemed to do everything we could to sabotage ourselves. Basically we cornered ourselves into having to find a class in Kalispell or Whitefish on Friday, since we wouldn’t be home on Saturday until after the two Missoula class options had passed. We found one in Kalispell, and, after a day inhaling smoke and not really eating anything, it destroyed us. “Our room gets kind of dry,” the instructor said, “so we run it a little hot.” I chose a spot in front of two fans, assuming that, like in our studio, they would kick on to blow cool air when things got too hot from all the working bodies. I was wrong. They kicked on to blow hot air. I was right next to the thermostat. It was 115° when we started, and when it dipped down to like 112° the heat would kick on back to 115°. Nightmare. At least we got our note saying we did it and are still in the running to win the damn contest.
View out my office window, 5:00 PM Saturday, no filters. Apocalyptic orange glow courtesy of smoke from several regional conflagrations.
View out my office window, 5:00 PM Saturday, no filters. Apocalyptic orange glow courtesy of smoke from several regional conflagrations.
Proof of near death experience.
Proof of near death experience.



Rage Spike

3:00 PM UPDATE: Turns out it was AN INSIDE JOB!

After talking to my mom, who suggested that maybe the willows had been cut intentionally, I called the local FWP office and talked to the manager who handles Council Grove, Mike Hathaway. Turns out they did indeed do the cutting, or at least it was done in their name via an Americorps volunteer, who also performed the initial planting. The tops of the trees were starting to die, and they were being damaged by the wind, so they were cut in hopes of encouraging root growth. Mike and I also discussed the fact that people were still obviously accessing the river via that closed spot, even though there is available access about twenty feet away. He asked my opinion as to what I thought should be done next, etc. So it was a good conversation. I told him I felt a little guilty for feeling the outrage, and he told me I shouldn’t. “Get a group of us managers together,” he said, “and you’ll hear plenty of stories of just the kind of vandalism you suspected here.” So while I briefly thought that maybe people DON’T suck, it turns out they actually still do.


Whenever I’m not traveling, every day I take Darla the Adventure Dog for a walk at a river access location nearby called Council Grove. It is actually a primitive state park. During poor weather, or cold weather, we practically have it all to ourselves. As summer rolls in, it sees more and more use. It’s beautiful, with copious wildlife, primarily birds. It is an easy place to love, and sauntering there is often the highlight of my day. I know it is for Little D as well.

A few weeks ago, along about a 40-50 foot stretch of riverbank, where the edge has broken off and collapsed into the flow of the river when it runs higher than normal, the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks people posted several signs that read as follows:

Willows have been planted in this area to restore natural habitat, prevent flooding, and stabilize the river banks. Help keep Council Grove a great place for both wildlife and people by not disturbing the vegetation on the banks, keeping your dogs on leash, and accessing the river at suggested river access points only. Thank you for your cooperation.

I’ve spoken with the game warden a couple times when I’ve encountered him down there, and he’s a nice enough guy. He realizes most people don’t keep their dogs on leashes, and isn’t really a hard-ass about it. But as it gets busier, he needs to enforce it. I understand. Most people take the risk. It isn’t a big deal.

They planted at least 20 or 30 willows along that bank. There is a perfect access spot right adjacent to the closed area, with a sign indicating it as such. I was out there Monday the 15th, and the new growth looked good. The next day I left on a work trip, and wasn’t out there again until the afternoon/evening of my return on the 19th. In the intervening time some fucking asshole had come along and cut off all the willows and absconded with them. They range in size from a bit bigger than my thumb to as small as my little finger. All gone.

click to make bigger
click to make bigger

Who the hell does something like that? Some jerk-off mad at MFWP? And they’re too dumb to realize it’s everyone else they’re hurting too? It is the kind of senseless vandalism I just don’t get. Leaving cigarette butts and beer and soda cans and shit like that pisses me off because it’s lazy. This fills me with rage. What sucks is they will likely never be caught either. What a waste. I’m making tons of effort these days to try and get my head straight and be a better person and all that, but stuff like this (not to mention racism and mass shootings and free trade agreements and oil rigs headed to Alaska and on and on… ) really makes me wish for a freakin’ pandemic or something. Truly.

Well. Rather than close on a bad note, here is a collection of Darla the Adventure Dog in action at Council Grove. She’s always happy so long as some rambunctious puppy isn’t all up in her grill.



And here are just a couple other shots I’ve taken there recently.






Hot Summer Nights

We — not just my barking household, but the entire neighborhood — were awakened in the wee hours by a crack of lightning and thunder that sounded like it struck right outside our door. Today, in the hills just beyond, is a smallish fire. I’m listening to and watching a helicopter battle it with water from a bucket dipped out of the Clark Fork River that flows just a half mile or so yonder. I shot this picture standing on my front porch. It’s a little spooky. I’m curious to see if I’ll be able to see flames later tonight. I suspect I will.



I’m standing beside my old Ford, passenger side, the door open, using a bent, grungy key I found in the glove box to saw the top off a clear plastic jug that used to hold emergency radiator water, when the kid says, “Hey Mister, you want to know something creepy?”

I raise my eyes across the bench seat where I can see him through the open driver’s side window. He’s shirtless, grubby, and looks a little uncertain. “Sure,” I say.

“Did you know you can live for five minutes with your head cut off?”

I raise my eyebrows. “No kidding? That is creepy.”

The girl standing next to me, her face betraying the early hints of pre-teen acne, nods. Her eyes are wide and she says, “We kept a chicken’s head alive for a whole year one time.”

“That’s really something.”

The kid says, “I guess they cut it off just right.”

“I guess so.”

I continue sawing at the jug a few moments more, then tear the top back like a half-opened soup can. I hand it to the girl. “That ought to do the trick.”

“Thanks,” she says. She smiles at the kid.

They scramble down the bank toward the river. “Have fun,” I say. “Don’t drown.”

Friday Reads – Opportunity, Montana by Brad Tyer and Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier by John Clayton

For lovers of nonfiction with an interest in Montana, here are a couple offerings well worth your time checking out.

tyer-opportunitymontana-chapmanOpportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape by Brad Tyer

Somewhere in the last couple years I realized I had become addicted to water. If not the ocean, which still freaks me out, then streams, rivers, and lakes. It’s not hard to imagine how it happened. Six Mile Creek runs right through my parents’ backyard and is the source of their water; that’s the water I grew up drinking. I’ve talked about my relationship to Frenchtown Pond. And in the last ten years, as I’ve taken on the hobbies of canoeing and fly fishing — with flirtations with kayaking and SUPing that only await the funds to bring more gear into the rotation — that much more of my free time has been spent on moving water.

Missoula is perfect for these interests, with three rivers coming together in town: the Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, and the Clark Fork. Tyer’s book is, at its core, about how saving the Clark Fork, particularly for the benefits of Missoulians, spelled doom for the town of Opportunity, which lies just a few score miles upstream of the Garden City. The synopsis, from Amazon:

In 2002, Texas journalist Brad Tyer strapped a canoe on his truck and moved to Montana, a state that has long exerted a mythic pull on America’s imagination as an unspoiled landscape. The son of an engineer who reclaimed wastewater, Tyer was looking for a pristine river to call his own. What he found instead was a century’s worth of industrial poison clotting the Clark Fork River, a decades-long engineering project to clean it up, and a forgotten town named Opportunity.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montana exploited the richest copper deposits in the world, fueling the electric growth of twentieth-century America and building some of the nation’s most outlandish fortunes. The toxic by-product of those fortunes—what didn’t spill into the river—was dumped in Opportunity.

In the twenty-first century, Montana’s draw is no longer metal but landscape: the blue-ribbon trout streams and unspoiled wilderness of the nation’s “last best place.” To match reality to the myth, affluent exurbanites and well-meaning environmentalists are trying to restore the Clark Fork River to its “natural state.” In the process, millions of tons of toxic soils are being removed and dumped—once again—in Opportunity. As Tyer investigates Opportunity’s history, he wrestles with questions of environmental justice and the ethics of burdening one community with an entire region’s waste.

Stalled at the intersection of a fading extractive economy and a fledgling restoration boom, Opportunity’s story is a secret history of the American Dream and a key to understanding the country’s—and increasingly the globe’s—demand for modern convenience.

As Tyer explores the degradations of the landscape, he also probes the parallel emotional geography of familial estrangement. Part personal history and part reportorial narrative, Opportunity, Montana is a story of progress and its price: of copper and water, of father and son, and of our attempts to redeem the mistakes of the past.

I found this book a fascinating read, particularly the historical reporting centering on Butte and the city’s infamous Copper Kings. I also attended a great reading at Shakespeare and Co. Books in Missoula, where Brad’s discussion included much input from other knowledgeable folks in the Missoula area, about the project the book details and what has happened since. I realized how little I knew about something so important that was happening right under my nose; Tyer’s effort certainly inspired me to pay closer attention.

In a weird way I feel I should know Brad. I didn’t speak to him at all at the reading, but, given his former role as Editor at the Independent, we know many of the same people. All of my work writing for that paper has been since he handed over the reins, but I’m sure our paths will cross in town again sometime.

montana_frontier_coverStories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier: Exploring an Untamed Legacy by John Clayton

For a large state with a small population, an inordinate amount of fascinating stuff has gone down in my home state. We also have an excellent crop of regional publications, and Clayton seems to have put his brand on most of them. What I like about this collection of essays is that it doesn’t dwell on the guns-blazing stuff that most people associate with Montana and history; this is stuff generally a little closer to the modern era, and certainly more obscure. Here’s the copy from Amazon:

At the turn of the twentieth century, Montana started emerging from its rugged past. Permanent towns and cities, powered by mining, tourism, and trade, replaced ramshackle outposts. Yet Montana’s frontier endured, both in remote pockets and in the wider cultural imagination. The frontier thus played a continuing role in Montanans’ lives, often in fascinating ways. Author John Clayton has written extensively on these shifts in Montana history, chronicling the breadth of the frontier’s legacy with this diverse collection of stories. Explore the remnants of Montana’s frontier through stories of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Beartooth Highway, and the lost mining camp of Swift Current–and through legendary characters such as Charlie Russell, Haydie Yates, and “Liver-eating” Johnston.

There are all kinds of little towns around this state, and I’ve often wondered why they exist, what started them. I mean, how the hell did people ever get there in the first place? People from other states think I’m joking when I refer to something four hours away as being a neighbor; I’m not. You can go looooong stretches out here between towns, so there better be something special keeping you here. As I read books like this, or poke around in other dusty corners, I start to learn all kinds of weird little facts of how these communities came to be. Mostly mining towns, or towns sprung up around other extractive industries that don’t really have traction anymore, they remain because they are still beautiful and quiet places to live, and people work hard to make lives happen. The stories of the people who started these communities, and those who remain, and the weird things that happened there . . . these are the stories that Clayton tells. This is important stuff to me, particularly as more and more parts of Montana start to look like everywhere else with big box stores and suburban bullshit. I’m looking forward to more of this. . . .