Insane for the Light

A guided tour through a blindside divorce

Month: February, 2014

Thank God I’m not in St. Louis

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:

Well sir
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.

A new friend

I awoke that first morning in a sea of white, and went immediately outside to see what the world looked like on the side of a mountain in Montana in the waning days of the year. A bit of sun played around the edges of the winter cloud cover. The air was cold, but not painfully so – perhaps the cliché about the tolerability of dry heat also applies to dry cold as well.

When I opened the door, all I could see was evergreen trees and the peaks across the valley poking up over their dark green tops. I turned around to see what was behind the house: more trees, and more mountain, reaching ever upward. I spun around and set off down the driveway toward the road.

I knew there were neighbors down the road – Dr. G, an internist at the small hospital in Libby, and her German husband, a math professor who commuted two hours to Missoula to teach courses at the University of Montana. Our house and theirs were the only two dwellings on the mountain. When he wasn’t teaching, the Professor took care of their house and horses, and spent long afternoons working equations I could not fathom in the library of their large, Alpine-style home. The Professor plowed the road in his ancient Suburban, and had kindly turned on the heat in the house for us before we arrived. Dr. G had left a plate of Christmas cookies on the blindingly orange countertop. Five years later, when my father-in-law was ready to sell the house and we badly wanted to buy it, Dr. G and the Professor would finance it for us. Two years after that, when I found myself abruptly back in Indiana without warning, they would buy it from us.

I started down the road at its intersection with the driveway, where longer-lived tire tracks than my own cut through the drifts. Over the course of several winters, I would come to realize that snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year; it reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. A few feet off the road, I noticed a swirl of competing animal tracks. One was unmistakably from a rabbit, with its twin pairs of indentations, one elongated, one shorter. Those tracks were interspersed with a set of larger, clawless, two-lobed mammal tracks: a bobcat. A skirmish had occurred here.

But what happened? Did the rabbit escape? Or did the bobcat get a much-needed winter meal? There was no answer. The snow doesn’t always finish the story.

It was against this backdrop that, a few steps later, I looked up the road and perceived an enormous black creature lying watchfully on the snow, apparently unmoved by the cold. My heart took flight. Bear? I looked again more closely. Bears hibernate, my rational brain interjected.  And they don’t make a habit of reclining on snow-packed roads.

I stood very still, trying to determine the animal’s identity. We faced off that way for a moment, neither of us flinching. Then the beast lifted its thick, brontosauran tail and began beating it against the ground, sending bits of snow flying with every thump, then then roused the rest of its sofa-sized bulk off the snow and loped down the road toward me.

My new acquaintance was, of course, a dog, an enormous black dog with a globe-sized head and jowls that dangled off it like Scarlett O’Hara’s draperies. “You must be Neptune,” I said as he approached. We had heard about the Professor’s dog, a middle-aged Newfoundland. Neptune licked my hand in assent with his beef-sized tongue, and we continued down the road together. I was happy to make a friend so quickly.

The life of dogs was different on the mountain, and so were their relationships with their human companions. Neptune – and his successor, another affectionate behemoth named Donar – retained much more independence than their urban counterparts. With the exception of nighttime, when the mountain became unreasonably dangerous for domestic dogs, their owners trusted their judgment about where they wished to spend their time and when. My own dogs would come to enjoy the same privileges when they were on the mountain.

Both Newfies always understood that we were their friends, and they would sometimes show up unannounced in our living room, having stuffed themselves through whatever door we’d left cracked to catch the summer breeze. If we were present, they might pause before the pantry door and stare plaintively at us, silently urging us to bring out the box of dog biscuits we stored there. Then perhaps they would position their heads under our fingers for a scratch. Or we might simply walk into the room and find Donar’s massive bulk stretched across the couch, legs and tail dangling off, unable to find purchase on the worn leather.

Spring06 202 (2)

Visiting Newfie relaxing on unfortunate carpet.

Nobody minded. This was the mountain, and they were like neighbor kids, moving from house to house as they pleased. If we didn’t want company, we could simply close the door; they didn’t know how to knock. Otherwise, they would hang out with us until the sound of Dr. G’s voice wafted thinly through the window, at which point the Newfie in question would slide lazily off the couch, pause to pick up his biscuit, and waddle off toward home.  This arrangement became much more complicated when I acquired Thomas, a neurotic Border Collie-Siberian Husky mix, and began bringing him to Montana with me. But we all managed to coexist, largely because of the companionable character of the Newfoundlands, the peacemakers of the mountain.

An odd house in the woods

_DSC0043c (2)I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the northwest corner of the state, near the town of Libby. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever possible. The house sat at the top of a winding gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. One spring day a few years ago I left it – briefly, I thought – to return to the suburbs of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where we lived most of time. I loaded up the dogs in the truck, closed and locked the gate behind me as I always did, and drove down the mountain.

I didn’t know it was the last time I’d ever see it.

Seven years before that, late on a winter night, I saw it for the first time.

There are no real airports anywhere near Libby, Montana. The town is nestled in a bend of the Kootenai River, which carves its way through the Cabinet Mountains down from Canada, and eventually empties into the Columbia River. The closest airport with reasonably priced fares was in Spokane, Washington. We landed there, rented a car and drove north into the Idaho panhandle. About an hour south of the Canadian border, we veered sharply east into Montana on Highway 2, an isolated, cold mountain road that leads past the tiny town of Troy, into Libby, and eventually onto Kalispell and the Glacier National Park area.

Once in Libby, we followed Fifth Street out of town toward a now-defunct logging mill. (Later I would learn that moose sometimes wander onto Fifth Street and hang out, creating what passes for a traffic jam in northwest Montana.) Beyond the abandoned mill, we turned onto a back road that parallels the Kootenai River for several miles.

Champion Haul road in autumn

Champion Haul road in autumn

Along this usually empty road, at the base of a minor mountain, there was an unmarked gate – a battered metal bar of little consequence that served more as notice than a barrier. Late one night in December, we pulled our rented SUV up to the gate – we had missed it the first time and had to turn around – and I hopped out. There was a crunch as my boots hit the old, packed snow. The icy air froze the tiny hairs inside of my nostrils with each intake of breath. I looked up at the thin, black sky; a few stars poked through the cloud cover here and there. I lay my hands on the metal gate and flinched a bit as the metal drained the warmth from my fingers – I should have put my gloves on first. As I’d been instructed, I unhooked the heavy bar from its notch and pushed it open with the weight of my body, using the momentum to swing it all the way open. The road ahead, dimly lit by our headlights, curved around and disappeared into a stand of evergreens, their snow-sleeved branches draped alongside thick trunks.

The SUV drove past the now-open gate, and for a moment I wondered what it would be like to be left alone on the silent, cold road in the middle of the dark forest. But the brake lights soon flickered a few feet ahead, and I re-latched the gate and ran up the slope to catch them.  This would become a ritual for me in the next seven years; the arrival at the bottom of the mountain, exiting the vehicle to swing open the gate, sucking in the pungent scent of pine in summer, absorbing the sting of the cold gate in winter. But all of this was new as I hiked up the hill that night in fresh tire tracks.

Once I was back in the warmth of the car, my then-husband, Gil, shifted into all-wheel drive and we climbed steadily upward. The lights of the town twinkled below. The road in places was unnervingly narrow and slickly coated with packed snow. Looking through the dark trees, I wondered where the bears were hibernating, and whether the mountain lions, who do not spend the winter as sluggish and sleepy as bears, were lurking anywhere close.

Fall06 173After several  turns around the mountain, another gate presented itself, this one closed and padlocked. Beyond the gate loomed a cedar-sided house with many angles and sloped roofs. This was the house my father-in-law had bought the year before. He spent time here only in summer, so the place had been closed up since September. The house was entirely dark, except for a single light above a door that opened to the garage. Gil reached into the back seat and fished an envelope out of his duffel bag with his dad’s handwriting scrawled across the front. He withdrew two keys from it – one for the gate, and another for the house. I hopped out again and performed another gate opening, and we drove the final hundred yards to the door on unplowed snow. He used the second key to unlock the door, which had an ornate pattern carved in the wood. From there you could climb upstairs to the main part of the house, or go through a door in the back of the garage that led to the bedrooms and a glass-walled solarium.

The inside of the house was jarring.  The place had been built in the early 1980s, when the color schemes of the seventies had begun colliding with the pastel palettes that would haunt the next decade. The front room, a sort of kitchen-great room combination, featured orange carpets and rust-colored formica countertops. The living room on the other end of the house had powder blue carpet and a bathroom with a toilet in a nauseous mauve shade. (Nothing says Montana like a pink crapper.)   In between the front room and the living room, as if standing between the two decades, was a nondescript dining area painted gray, with beat-up parquet flooring. The entire place had a lonely, unlived-in feeling.

The Lizard2 (2)A few days later I would find, sealed into the frame of the front door, the perfectly preserved skeleton of a toad that had been in the wrong place at very much the wrong time. No one had noticed it in the intervening years, or thought to remove it.  I never had the heart to remove it myself, even after I owned the place. It became a kind of morbid mascot for my house in the Northwoods.

And yet, when I looked upward in the front room – instead of down at the unfortunate carpet – there was a gracefully slanted timber frame ceiling, its hard wood gleaming.  A broad picture window looking out at the valley framed the tips of the Cabinet Mountains. I would stand there many times over the next seven years gazing at the view.  In the evening, the sun might be sinking behind the peaks and setting them alight.  If it was summertime, I would hear the chirps of grasshoppers, or the loud flappings of a grouse’s wings slipping through the open windows. If it was the middle of the night, and I’d come upstairs for a snack or a drink, I might hear the coyotes and the neighbor dogs howling at each other down the road.

But late that freezing night, we just stood in the middle of the front room, looking around.  The far wall of this room had windows that opened not to the outside, but to a glass-walled solarium, and a hot tub on the first floor below. Gil cranked open one of the windows and peeked out. It was a strange house, with unexpected rooms and corners and crannies decorated in terrible, terrible colors, all improbably situated on the side of a mountain.

“Damn,” he said in awe as he turned from the window. I nodded, sharing his sense of homecoming. I’d never been anywhere I was more clearly meant to be.