Showing posts with label Montana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Montana. Show all posts

06 July, 2013

Story Gathering Project 1 - Williston: Update 7/6/13

It's three days until I leave for Chicago to catch the train. True to form, I'm getting all the last minute details lined up... the ones I can get lined up at any rate... and making sure my pack is together.

The fine art of traveling cheap rests almost entirely upon contingencies and preparedness. You take certain parameters into account and move from there. On this trip out I'm taking the new rucksack, the blue guitar, and a sleeping bag. It's all light weight, all easy to combine and carry. It's summer, but I'm packing in case an impromptu chill descends. My boots are solid. I've got a poncho-bivy (it can work as a simple shelter as well as be worn as a poncho.) I'm taking some trail mix, a few apples, and a bottle of water. I'll have a little.. very little... cash to play with. 

I'm also taking a digital recorder, leftover from my days as a small town muckraker, and enough technology to be able to blog and send out updates to you, Dear Readers, and to those loved ones who would prefer that I return safe and sound.

There are other parameters to consider; in this case, the story-gathering project. I'm giving myself a short amount of time in Williston -- 9 days. I was hoping to give myself more leeway, on the long and short end, but finances dictated the mode and methodology of travel. I opted for a multi-city train ticket because it provided the most flexibility for what I could afford. And while this particular jaunt has some built-in reasons behind it... partially my curiosity and love of an interesting story, partially because after the winter I need to stretch my legs a bit. 

But I'm not much of an over-planner. It's important to be flexible when you travel, and go where the winds sometimes send you. Too much over planning and over scheduling and traveling runs the risk of turning into something else entirely... like a vacation. Ye gods. How is it that people -- who over schedule themselves and their kids to begin with -- decide to take a break from it all by packing up and going to some other geographical location, where they proceed to OVER PLAN AND OVER SCHEDULE every minute of their time there? By the time they get home, they're exhausted, just in time to go back to work where they can relax and reintegrate into the humdrum routine they wanted to escape in the first place.

There are some variables I won't be able to take into account until I there. Weather is the primary consideration. It's probably not going to snow, but there's been a lot of rain rolling around this year. I'm hoping to camp a bit while I'm out... particularly when I get to East Glacier Park, Montana. I want to spend a few days there, close to nature and in as much solitude as I can stand. 





25 May, 2012

Homo Viator (Westward Expanse) Look for me in Butte

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding. - Proverbs 4:7


Tell me, O Swami of the water, what is the essence of life? BORROWED, saith he.  - William Least Heat-Moon


Street corner in Livingston, MT
It's snowing in Butte this morning. Most of my winter experience has been thankfully mild; some biting winds in D.C., Norfolk, and New York, a slight dusting in Ashland, KY. Lots of rain and threats of rain, this weather chasing me all over the country.  Every once in a while it catches up to me, and here, it seems, the weather has. But it's also going to be all of 40 degrees today... so warm enough for the snow not to stick. But annoying enough that I'll notice when I walk to the bus station in a few hours.

I'm here, waiting until the last minute to check out, under the watchful gaze of Our Lady of the Rockies, in the foothills of the Continental Divide. The further west you go -- regardless of whether you're in the northern part of the continent or in the southwest -- the landscapes become incredibly stark, lovely, and potentially unforgiving. One of the differences, though, is that people generally move to the desert ... especially southern Arizona ... with the intention -- whether they know it or not -- of erasing it. Erasing it with irrigation keeping grass that has no business in the East Valley alive. Erasing it with cement, with strip malls, with neon lights. Erasing what they think is nothing and replacing it with what truly is nothing.

In the northern part -- South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana in particular -- there's a pervading sense that if anything is going to get erased, it is people. The landscape between the towns and cities stretch into an illusory infinity, running out to greet a horizon that seems so close, yet so far away. Close enough to touch, but just far enough away to keep you moving forward.

Erasure -- or attempts at it -- comes in many forms. In this part of the country its come in the form of mining, of logging, and commercialization. The view from my hotel window demonstrates this as clear as anything. The highway (that brought me here and that will take me hence); gas stations, over-priced hotels (like this one), store front casinos, quickie marts. Beyond that commercialization coalescing around interstate exits and by-passes, on the left, is an old strip mine that's now a quarry. To the left: the mountains, reaching up through the low lying condensation that is evaporating into low lying clouds that will  keep the temperature cool and threaten rain for the rest of the day.


Sometimes erasure happens quickly. Most of the time, it doesn't. That human beings have more or less perfected the process (Biological and nuclear weapons, for example. Clear cutting forests, taking the top off mountains, and pollution are others.) doesn't change the fact that erasure is, in some ways a natural process. Erosion is a form of erasure. Ice ages. Volcanic eruptions. The slight tiling of the Earth's axis. The slow burning out of the sun. The big bang. The expanding and contracting universe. 

There's a real sense of gradual change in the west that's more obvious than in the east. The east coast is littered with towns and cities that worship their history -- a history washed with sentimentalism and driven by commercialism. Classic architecture butting up against cold modern and post modern design, architecture destroyed for the sake of preservation. The west has this mix of stubbornness in the face of inevitable change, historical revision in the name of commercial greed and tourism, and an underlying apathy about engaging with the world at all. That's not uncommon in rural areas. Farmers are, for the most part, stoic people who do what they do because it's what they've always done... and they will only change when it's clear what they do no longer works. Or when they're not given a choice. 

The Socialist Hall on Harrison Ave in Butte, built in 1916.
Butte is a city full of history... early mining and foresting, a history of unionism and radicalism... that is being erased as part of the drive to make it a tourist destination. The Socialist Hall on Harrison Avenue is one such example. I'd be willing to bet the building is listed on some historical register, otherwise some All Too Patriotic American would have lobbied to have it torn down. And since it couldn't be torn down, and the VFW wouldn't move into, someone did the next best thing. 

In T.S. Eliot at 101, Cynthia Ozick says that "knowledge -- saturated in historical memory -- is displaced by information, of memory without history: data." She wrote that in 1989; and if it was true then (I believe it was) it's more than true now. We're losing history to data, memory to information. 

The worst part of this kind of erasure -- the tragedy of it all -- is that while it is avoidable... we can choose to pay attention, we can choose to see, we can choose memory over information and history over data... it seems we're too busy trying to figure out how to be copy other people's lives and call that happiness.  We forget the important lessons and remember the transitory ones.

I have had to remember this myself. It's a wonderfully soulful realization.

Thanks for reading!   If you like what you read:

  1. Share the link
  2. Donate to the Travel Fund. It helps me pay for cheap shelter when I'm between couches, for nourishment. Thanks to those who have donated (gawd bless!) and thanks to those who will. 

23 May, 2012

Homo Viator (Westward Expanse) - Leaving Rapid City

A fire has risen above my tombstone hate.
I don't want learning, or dignity,
or respectability. -- Rumi


Listen, for I will speak of excellent things, and from the opening of my lips will come right things. - Proverbs 8:6


A beacon in the night... that wasn't as far a hoof as Super 8
Thanks to some welcome movement in the Travel Fund  (gawd bless!) I was able to afford a room The Lazy U Motel. After a few beers and getting some directions from a baby-faced blonde bartender who didn't get a Pete Rose reference (there was a picture of him, from his Big Red Machine Days, right behind her above the beer taps) and who used The Glenlivet to mix a concoction meant to make another patron puke, I left and walked up Mt. Rushmore Avenue towards a motel. My original intention had been to stay at a Super 8... cheapish with free WiFi.

I was glad I stopped at the Lazy U. Cindy and Verlyn cut me a break by letting stay one night and then switching rooms while letting me pay single rate for a double room.

Apparently, in addition to being the largest city nearest to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, Rapid City is also known as The City of Presidents. To prove this fact, they have bronze statues of past Presidents on street corners downtown. I found William H. Taft standing on a corner in front of an Irish Pub.

(This version of him is the kinder, gentler version. Other than being from Cincinnati, the only thing that made Taft at all remarkable is that he's remembered for getting stuck in a bath tub.)

I noticed one other thing about Rapid City:


Now, if you have any experience at all with casinos... in Vegas, Atlantic City, the res casinos near Phoenix... you haven't had experience with these kinds of places. Apparently in the part of the country, all you need to open a casino is a storefront and a snappy marketing campaign.

Now I'm not above laying a bet... anyone who knows me knows I love the horses, and I'm not afraid of a blackjack table. Casinos and hospitals are made to suck people in; these storefront casinos were all up and down Mt. Rushmore Street, like dingy toadstools.

Of course, you should give people what they want, I suppose. So it's hard to know which came first... lonely old ladies with pension checks or the casinos that open their arms to them, their money, their loneliness.


I was hoping to visit the Black Hills... because I wanted to get away. Away from the cement, away from the strip malls and storefront casinos. It's hard for me to embrace the commercialism littering the landscape -- and the principals underlying it -- when I run into people time and again who are riding across country, just trying to survive.

I checked out of the motel and walked downtown. I was going to go back to Sanford's and drink dollar beer, but I came across the Oasis Lounge. I decided to stop in and have a drink.

The place was dead; but it was also 2 in the afternoon. On the other hand, that meant it was 5 pm in Kentucky and well past cocktail hour. The Oasis is a dive bar gone classy... sort of. Round green bar stools growing out of the ground, private tables for more intimate conversations, and pool tables with worn but well cared for felt. The bartender was a tired old biker wearing a Sturgis
pen on his leather vest. He walked like he was in a lot of pain, but he poured a full shot of bourbon and didn't pay me much mind at first.

After the second round he sat down, holding his coffee cup like a Jewish Refuge. He started talking about a documentary watched the previous night about the shooting of Ronald Reagan. We talked about the shooting -- I remember it, watching it being replayed on the nightly news. Even as a kid I knew that Reagan was a lousy President -- there was far too much proof around me of the failure of trickle down economics --  but I also realized, even then, that shooting anyone... a President or anyone else... because you didn't like their point of view (or because you think an actress is telling you to because you're fucking crazy)... didn't make any sense.

This is a school yard lesson. Someone hits you because they don't like something about you. You hit back. Somebody wins. Somebody loses. Nothing changes except your knuckles are sore and you may have a black eye.

I guess it's fair to say I considered pacifism as a logical approach before I even really understood what it meant.

Never underestimate the thoughtfulness of crusty old bastards. Jerry -- that's the bartender's name -- went on about Reagan, but not in a way that led me to believe he was on the bandwagon to deify him. We talked about Nixon going to China and about how the only reason that happened was because of Kissinger -- who was too smart to ever want to be President.

We even talked about the current GOP and Mitt Romney a bit. I mentioned, as I usually do, that I think Romney has very Presidential hair... and that he makes more sitting on his ass than most of the people I know make in a year. (Some, in two years.)

"Yeah," Jerry said. "I'm probably gonna go with the black kid again. At least with him I know what to expect."

It doesn't take brains to be President of the United States. As a matter of fact, all it really takes is enough money, and having smart people around you. Falling within the statistical parameters of what robber baron marketeers call good looking helps, too. 

Jerry, who's originally from California, told about his childhood friend, Tom. Tom didn't have any money growing up. He'd come over, Jerry said, to go to the movies -- Jerry had a brand new Corvette in high school -- and his mom (Jerry's) would ask Tom how much money his mother gave him for the movie. He'd say he had a dollar -- which was what the movie cost. Jerry's mom would then say, "Well, I gave Jerry $10," and she'd reach into her purse and give the kid a sawbuck.

"We'd get out to the car," he said, shaking his and laughing, "and I say, ' You son of a bitch!' and he says 'What?' And I say 'You walked into the house with less money than I do and walk out with a dollar more!"

He laughed, but the laugh petered out into a sad silence. "She always liked him better."

Jerry went on to tell me his friend Tom is now one of the largest land developers in California and is worth 175 million dollars.

"And you know his secret?"

"No," I said. "What?"

"Don't play the stock market."

As much as I wanted to stay, keep downing shots of  Kentucky bourbon, and talk to Jerry, I wanted to make sure my ride out of Rapid City was lined up. I also needed to eat something... which I hadn't gotten around to yet. That meant another run through at Sanford's for a few dollar pints and some chili cheese fries... one of those all around good foods that nearly covers all the major greasy food groups. Then I walked over to the bus station and checked on my bus, got my boarding pass and still had time to kill.

I knew they were cops because they were trying to hard to look like they weren't. One of them was wearing a dark blazer that was an attempt to cover either a radio, a gun, or both.

The bus was 15 minutes late rolling in, but since part of 1-90 was an orange barrel obstacle course, that didn't surprise me. The cop in the jacket spoke to me. "Wait until everyone's off to get on the bus."

"I will," I said. "I've done this before."

"Well..." he said, "something's going to be happening."

The person they were waiting for was one of the last off the bus. He was maybe 4 and half feet tall, maybe Mexican. The cop in the black coat shook his and clamped the cuffs on. He seemed to be expecting the reception.

So did his baby mama, Sasquatch. She was a good half inch taller than me, with a football player's shoulders and huge hands. I double-checked for an adam's apple. There wasn't one. She looked exhausted, and the heavy make slathered on her Native American features was staring to fade and run. The baby looked tiny against her. She walked over to the cop car with the cops and watched them go through her bags.

They weren't finished yet when it was time to board the bus. As we pulled away, they were digging through every pocket and spreading everything on the hood of the car.