That afternoon, we ventured back down the hill to check out the grocery store. Libby was a small town, but the grocery store didn’t skimp. I wandered into the dairy section, having already located fresh herbs and high-quality coffee, and found a whole shelf of artisan cheeses.
People eat well out west.
We gathered enough food for the week we were to spend there and headed to the checkout line. We spilled our stuff onto the conveyor belt and waited for Juanita, a bright-yellow blonde with chestnut roots, to swipe our items. When she got to our small head of lettuce, she examined it as though it were an alien space rock. “Tim!” she yelled at the man at the adjacent register. “What is this?”
Tim, a fastidious looking man, turned his head impatiently. This was obviously not the first time Juanita had sought his counsel that day, and given his expression, perhaps not even the first time in the last four minutes. Tim examined our lettuce contemptuously for approximately a tenth of a second. “It’s Boston Lettuce, Juanita,” he sighed wearily, turning his back on her once again.
Juanita scrunched her face in disgust before elevating her middle finger for several long seconds at Tim’s back. “That wasn’t meant for you honey,” she said to E.J. Good to know.
We paid quickly and dragged our mystery lettuce to the car, hopping over ice patches in the parking lot. We were halfway to the rental car when a VW Bus careened past us and screeched to a halt in the space next to ours. A movement in one of the curtained windows caught my eye. I craned my neck to get a closer look. “Look!” I said. There’s a goat in that VW Bus.” And there it was, peering out the window, horns and all. Someone had a shotgun goat. I was thrilled. It’s one thing to own a goat; it’s another to let it tag along on errands. I had come home to my people, to shotgun goats and bird-flipping cashiers. No one in this place would judge me for leaving a frog skeleton in my door frame.
In a time when you hear a lot about the “Californication” of Montana, how quickly you assimilate in a town like Libby depends how quickly you grasp that no one ever really assimilates. But there are practical markers between residents and itinerants. For example, you can tell a lot about someone’s status by the way they pronounce “Kootenai,” the name of the major river in town and also a name slapped on two out of every three businesses in town. If you’re passing through, a first-timer or just a tourist, you will call it the Koo-ten-eye or the Koo-ten-ay. But if you’ve been around, you know that you’re supposed to say “KOO-teh-neee” – and that should be awkwardly smashed together so that it comes out “Koot-n-eee.” And you shake your head in embarrassment, because that was never one of your guesses when you were trying to figure out how to pronounce it. But once you’ve been condescendingly corrected by the guy who lets his goat ride along to the grocery store, you learn quickly.
In addition to the weirdness, Northwest Montana is the wildest place left in the Lower 48. For proof of this, I offer a single metric: grizzly bears. Grizzly bears are still common in Alaska and Canada, but their numbers are much fewer elsewhere. Grizzly bears are the pit bulls of wildlife. They have a terrible reputation, but are shy, outwardly wimpy and occasionally even adorable. The catch, however, is that they’ll kill you if they feel that they must. Black bears are edgier and more likely to pick a fight, but are less likely to leave you dead when they do. These bears are enough to contend with, but when you go outside in northwest Montana for any distance, there’s the constant specter of meeting both of them. Most of the grizzlies are concentrated in the Glacier National Park area, but there was a healthy clutch of them in the Cabinet Mountains across the valley from the house, as well as to the north in the Yaak Valley. It was not uncommon to find that a bear had used our driveway as a lavatory after gorging on too many berries, especially when we were gone for long periods of time and there was no one to scare them off.
“What’s the news?” I asked Dr. G one time just after I’d arrived. “What happened while I was back in suburban purgatory?” I asked her this every time I came back, because there was always something for her to tell. “Not much this time,” she replied. “Except Neptune treed a bear and we had to drag him back to the house. Oh, and we caught a bear spying on us through the sliding glass door at dinner the other night. I don’t know if it was the same one or not.”
Not much this time.
One hot day that same summer, as we were hiking along the game trail that branched off the driveway and wrapped around the mountain, we stumbled on a single severed deer leg. The appendage was undeniably fresh but mostly stripped clean of meat, with the exception of a piece of tendon dangling off it grotesquely.
“Snack?” E.J. asked me when he saw it. “Hate to pass up rotten deer tendon, but I’m stuffed from breakfast,” I replied snappily. Thomas had no such reservations. He grabbed the leg and trotted down the trail with it, the tendon streaming backward out of his mouth in the breeze. It was a small reminder not to think we were anything but part of the food chain – and not the top part.
There was a print on the wall in the house that my father-in-law had found at a garage sale. It read:
this past year in the Rocky Mountains
has been of a customary nature
the Bonnacks stole my traps
met a grizzly that took half my ear
The Blackfeet shot my horse
Went thro the ice on the Gallatin
The Blackfeet stole my cache of beaver
Lost my mules to the
current on Henry’s Fork
The Crow took to
give me a musket ball in the thigh
broke thro a limestone crust and
boiled my horse in Yillowstone
and beavers gettin scarce
But thank God I’m not in St. Louis. Like the poet, I couldn’t help but feel like the place was constantly trying to kill me. But this only made me love it more, as I found myself feeling proud that I could survive there. Usually, no more than a day passed after arriving in Montana before I began to swagger a little bit. This never happened in the city.
If the bears didn’t kill you, then you had to worry about other animals. In addition to the more brazen bears, we found mountain lion prints on the trail we walked regularly. The big cats were even scarier, because they were stealthy; they had no interest in advertising themselves. A third predator arrived when wolves re-established themselves on the mountain behind us. Then there were the elements. One November night on the road back from Kalispell, we flipped the truck after sliding on black ice on a bridge, coming to rest upright with our tires straddling a creek. We watched, tensely, as wildfires approached one superheated August, and we could see the threads of smoke slipping up over the mountaintops.
But thank God we weren’t in St. Louis.