“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
-Dee Brown: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
We have driven approximately 1379.29 miles since I last wrote. Our foray into the natural wilds and the concrete jungles of the West coast of the United States was lengthy, beautiful, damp, and draining. By then end of it– and I will blame the Great Port Angeles Meth Head Incident, not Port Angeles in its entirety, because I really ought to be fair– I was left totally numb and unable to write or draw or sing, and I had an unusual craving for desert air. That dissipated quickly but I knew there must have been something dreadfully wrong within me to want the arid skies of a flat and featureless plain rather than be near my beloved Pacific Ocean. Not enough vitamin D, perhaps. Or maybe all of the damnable Twilight references dotting the seaside towns.
Now we are in Idaho, by way of Montana. After upending our coffers and hearing naught but the clink of pennies, pennies which must sometime carry us to the East coast, we abandoned any thought of the western coast of Canada and made eyes at an eastern route. But it wasn’t just the lack of money that thwarted our plans. The car incident wasn’t only a blow to the windshield, hood, and roof of the Honda. It was the death knell of my creativity, a week of waiting aimlessly in a dusty hotel room watching ships drift in and out of port. My brain felt flat. Port Angeles, known more for its affiliation with the stunningly stupid teenage vampire books than with any kind of culture, lost its luster long before the six days of waiting were up (those auto body shops like to take their time). By then, the road had morphed into an old and weathered foe feebly waving its middle finger at us and smirking. Somehow that meth head had managed to not only destroy our car but to stomp the life out of my muse, as well. I was back to square one on my path to gather the remnants of it about me again, a tattered ballgown I had lost long ago. We headed numbly out onto the road. I was slow; Miles was slow. We dragged along, wondering where to go next.
We went to Seattle first, to try to jolt some life back into our bones. Seattle is a good city in that it has all of the correct city elements: diversity of cultures, beautiful landscapes and flora, interesting people and happenings. It also more closely resembles San Francisco than any other city either of us has been to (and that’s a high compliment). It was where I spent my first birthday away from friends and family, a sadness I chose not to wallow in but instead to ignore. We traipsed around the Seattle Art Museum on a friend’s annual pass. We visited the Experience Music Project, a birthday gift to me from my family and Miles’, along with dinner and a glass of wine at a place that featured music with lots of thumping noises and French sighs. We visited the Japanese Tea Gardens on the first full day of sun, and ate brunch with an old friend I had not seen in years.
I enjoyed not being where we had been, and I enjoyed getting lost for a while. But since the last time I visited when I was a teenager, much of Seattle had been gutted and rebuilt into a city of condos. Block upon block of monstrous identical boxes with names like “Element” and “The Volta.” If they were people they would drive Priuses, shop at Whole Foods, drool over Google Glass, jog, listen to atmospheric neo-bluegrass schmaltz, drink overpriced whiskey cocktails, and have no opinions outside of what NPR suggested they have. They would be predictable. We went to Pike’s Market and to outlying neighborhoods, searching for that thing, that ineffable something a city can hold within it that makes you fall in love with it. By the third day, I was slipping back into the well of bleakness I had felt before leaving on this trip, and had felt again in Port Angeles. When it was time to go, I was ready.
We decided we wanted to see someplace different. We were finished with lush, wet forests and crashing waves. Montana seemed like a good destination for that change. On our way out of Washington we stopped at the house of a cousin I had never met before, a man who used to play music with my dad when they were strapping young lads. He and his wife lived on a piece of property in upper Washington flanked by lush marshland and a country road. They welcomed us with open arms, a relief after being strangers in cold lands. We ate dinner, played music, and laughed. We got to Montana two days later, ducking beneath the Glacier National Park welcoming bridge just before dusk. In the morning I found that I had come across a world unto itself, a time capsule of the earth as it once had been, and of a truth few people can see.
As with all National Parks, in Glacier I got the feeling that I was witnessing the end of something. Despite the occasional lodge on a mountain top or beer can in an otherwise impeccable lake, Glacier is a time capsule. You can lose yourself in the ancient mark of pre-human history. It is carved in the steep, dark mountain ranges and their craggy peaks, and is carried in on the late spring storms that whip the dry plains air into frothing sleet in course of an evening. It is a land of contrasts, where seasons pile on top of one another in a jumble of elemental discourse.
West Glacier was an alpine dream, a postcard landscape of towering mountains and big blue skies filled with tumbling, billowing, creamy white clouds. Its mountains were crowned in fading snow, and they donned mantels of new spring green, the valleys carpeted in bright grasses and wildflowers. We slept two nights on the western side before heading to the east. Going To The Sun Road was closed at the halfway mark due to snow, so we drove there along the bottom edge, landing in St. Marys campground in the early evening among tall, sun bleached grasses and birdsong, and trees whose white bark stretched tautly around old knobs, forming eyes that watched us as we passed.
St. Marys was darker, but more telling. Along the mountain ranges on the eastern half of the park, a slice of icy, clear water forms St. Marys lake, and at her southeastern edge the land pools and flattens into the plains. Black, dark purple, gray, dark green, bright green, steel gray, pale blue gray, bone white, blood red, burnt brown: a mishmash of colors and textures layer upon one another from the ground to the ridge, showing in plain sight the formation of earth and the effects of time. The stark landscape, windswept and bent, struck me as lonely, and while I could not shake the feeling of sadness during our stay, I didn’t discourage it. It seemed like the way it was supposed to be. I think, perhaps, it might have been one of Glacier’s most beautiful seasons, before summer raised up its bright sail, and before winter would formally depart, still gusting and clawing at the landscape. We drove up GTTSR as far as the road would carry us, stopping occasionally for pictures, and once for a small black bear ambling across the pavement. We came across a gorge of tumbling white water and followed its path to a small waterfall, keeping a watchful eye for the mother bear and whistling as we walked. During our stay we were visited by a small red fox who trotted fearlessly from one site to another, hunting for food. I named him Rusty. We were visited by songbirds, some who sang us through a midnight storm. On our second morning, we woke to a new landscape: snow had sugared the hills and ridges. Suddenly, it was spring no more.
And in other ways, still, Glacier is a land of contrasts. If you go to the history page of the government’s Glacier National Park website, a brief overview of the park tells you that it is a coveted natural landscape that was saved from destruction by George Bird Grinnell. Mention of the tribes whose land was taken first for financial gain and then for the white man’s posterity is brief and simplified. As usual, the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai tribes, as with the majority of tribes in the U.S., are a whisper in the din of a half-truthed American history. The visitors centers will tell you about the native peoples’ food gathering techniques; they will tell you about their beautiful garb. They will also glorify Roosevelt and other white men and will hail them as saviors. They will not tell you of the bone-shattering grief that is the cost of white men being here at all; of the cost, even, of having national parks. But as you drive along that bottom edge of the rough diamond that is Glacier, as you pass over hills that overlook bleak flat plains and sharp ragged mountains; as you rush past broken cars and crumbling houses on one side and rambling rich ranch houses on the other; as you swallow the emptiness of the land: here and there, tucked away beneath prying eyes and away from the people whose ancestors washed away Indian history like so much filth you will find rainbows of prayer flags in the trees. Green, blue, white, red, black; some faded, some bright, all of them a prayer for a better future, for healing, for love, for peace. All of them wrapped tightly against the storm.
Our last night in the park we were rained out– sleeted out, more like– and we had to find shelter before we were forced to sleep in our car. We stayed at the inexplicably named San-Suz-Ed Campground, where we were charged $50 for an uninsulated shed with a lightbulb and a faulty portable heater, no bedding, and a group bathroom that was a long and frozen walk away. If we had not been so worn out from the last week of wet and snowy camping I would have complained. But as it was, I needed sleep. Comfort could happen later. On a trip to the latrine– a half broken cement stall full of bugs– the near-full moon crackled through the haze of a frozen sky. I gave thanks for my inability to block beauty from the world with my massive amounts of irritation.
We stayed in Missoula last, at the home of an aging hippie couple whose house featured gardens with small alcoves for sitting, and archways of white lights that led you homeward at night. Missoula has bookstores and art supply stores, cafes and bars, music, farmer’s markets, and the livelihood that any prosperous and thinking American might appreciate. I enjoyed it, but for the grumpy owner of Carlo’s One Night Stand second-hand clothing store, who impatiently eyed me as I perused the goods, and was annoyed with me after I said I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. “You only look, you don’t buy?” he accused. “Um, no, I buy. I just like the looking.” I eyed a pair of western boots greedily, then decided against them when I realized they could buy at least four dinners; and plus, why give that asshole the cash? I proudly exited the store, stomping down the street in my worn out, falling apart, fake-leather flats.
It was a much needed break we took in Missoula, departing for Boise, Idaho as soon as we’d had our fill of college town life. After a week in Montana we headed quietly into the flats of Idaho, the long, lonely road and the graying skies of late spring our only company.
Now we will see what happens next.