I was watching “Conagher” the other night. You know, that Western with Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross. Sam was a hard-drinking drifter who could fight and kill without a thought. Katherine was a mother who owned a dirt farm in the middle of the sagebrush, with some fine mountains in the distance. It was a strangely comfortable movie to me, though I’d not seen it before. Sam was shooting rustlers, drinking and fighting, and trying not to get hooked up with Katherine. (Which he did, of course, in real life.)
The more I watched it, the warmer I felt, even though there was more violence than I’m comfortable with. They were sitting together one evening, on her porch, talking quietly. There were crickets in the background and you could hear a gentle breeze glide across the old porch. And then it hit me. The crickets, the breeze, the sunsetting on the distant mountains… it was the Montana I once knew, back in my youth. Goose bumps popped yup on my arm; I could almost smell the air, sweet with sage and pine after a rain. For a moment I was back in Montana, old Montana, the Montana I grew up in during the ’40’s, ’50’s and ’60’s.
After the movie, I poured myself a brandy and thought about it. Did I still really miss Montana? I’ve been living on an island north of Seattle with Betty for eight years now, happy as a clam. The North Sound is beautiful country, the Olympic Mountains to the west, the Cascades to the east. The seasons are milld, the little town is friendly and all the necessities are close at hand. The air is different here, of course, it smells of salt and seaweed; but it’s a good smell and it’s a truly beautiful place to grow old together.
So why did “Conagher” hit me the way it did? Is Montana that deeply instilled in my brain, in my heart, in my memory? Yes, I guess it is. Montana runs through me, and is a part of me, in ways I can’t understand. It goes deep, like an old song. When a person spends the first 21 years of his life in The Last Best Place… but then I realized it… It’s the old Montana that I miss, not the new one.
I even miss who I was, when I was in Montana. I was tougher, more independent, more aware of my outdoor surroundings, more eager to be out in them, to soak them up and be a part of them. Am aware, however, that most of that is due to my old age. Montana is not for old people.
I retired and retreated to my cabin in Montana in November of 2005. The first five years back home were heavenly. Then it got tougher. And tougher. The long winters began to wear on me, chopping wood every day, living alone, fixing my own meals, struggling to stay warm on the long winter nights… and the people. The people living there now are not the same cut of people I grew up with. Much of the hardiness and the neighborliness was gone. There was the hint of a new defensiveness, sometimes even meanness, that seems to have found its way into the fiber of the new folk.
My theory as to the reason for all that is simple: Montana has been inhabited by out-of-staters for 50 years or so. It’s common knowledge of how the state has changed in that period of time. The urban areas have exploded with population; many open lands have been fenced and gated; access to many rivers, streams, camp sites and public lands have been closed. The Old Montana, that wild and free Montana, is gone. Man’s finger prints on the land is nearly always ugly, if not also destructive.
Tonight, as I write this, I’m remembering so many wonderful times in Montana. Small wonder I’ve loved it so, all my life. Small wonder “Conagher “affected me the way it did. The countless afternoons of fishing the rivers and streams with my folks; the many times we bounced around the hills in our Land Cruiser; the overnight camp outs, the camp fires in the quiet pines next to the creek; ah god, there is so much.
For all my sweet old Montana memories, there’s one I have to share with you. A little history here. Aside from the few merchants and bar owners in our small town of Virginia City, many of the residents had to find work wherever they could. The women tended bar, worked as secretaries, teachers or as assistants in the county courthouse. Their men found work as miners, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers or ranch workers.
Ernest Dixon and Harold Burgstrom were lifelong buddies. Harold’s nickname was “Tuffy” and Ernest’s was “Mutt.” Tuffy was burly and tough, Mutt was short and feisty. They called each other “pard.” They had joined the Marines at the beginning of WWII with the stipulation that they serve together through the war. The Marines had complied, and the two had fought in both theaters… Europe and the Pacific. I know they were in England for a time, as Tuffy, who was a fine piano player, brought back some cute English songs that he would play for me when he’d had a few. Somehow, they got shipped to the Pacific front and ended up landing on Iwo Jima. How they survived it all we never knew, as, you might guess, they never talked about it. With anyone.
Okay. That’s the history. During the summer of 1951, Tuffy and Mutt took a job working in a 3-man saw mill up Ruby Creek, which was up in the high timber west of the Madison River, midway between Ennis and West Yellowstone. From the Madison River, the saw mill was about 7 miles up a one-lane dirt road, into the timber, away from everything. Doll, Mutt’s wife, and Betty Boop, Tuffy’s wife, stayed up there with them much of the summer. For a two-week period in August, they brought some of their kids, and me, and a baby sitter, up there with them.
The kids were Terry, Jay and me. Pat Dixon, an older girl, was brought up to take care of us kids during the day. Turned out to be as much of a vacation for them as it was for us. There were two cabins at the saw mill site, and an old abandoned stone building several hundred yards down the road from the mill. We played in that empty building quite a bit during that vacation, as it gave us some relief from the constant whine of the saw mill.
For some strange reason, I still remember nearly every day of those two weeks. Now, they define so much of what Montana was back then. The saw mill ran from 8 ’til 5 every day, with an hour of quiet for lunch. The two little cabins that we lived in were right across the road from the saw mill, but by the end of the first week we were used to the noise. Many sunny days we sat outside the cabins, feeding the chipmunks, which would come right up into our laps for their treats. The squirrels were more cautious, but before long they would eat our of our hands as well.
Ruby Creek ran right behind the cabins, and every three days we would have to strip down and slip down into the frigid waters of Ruby Creek for a “bath.” The creek was fast and shallow and we had to sit in the deepest part of it to get properly washed off. I remember how good the towels felt when we climbed out. I was eight years old at the time, Terry was six and Jay was 4. We were friends and played well together.
The nights in the little cabin were my favorites. After the evening meal it would begin to get dark up there, and the “grown-ups” would light a couple of propane lamps. When it was dark, we kids would crawl into the bunk in the bedroom and pull the covers up, as it would cool off quickly. There was a curtain that would be pulled in the doorway between the bedroom and the living room, and we would settle in for the night. I remember so clearly, lying there on the top bunk, cozy and warm, listening to the adults in the next room, playing cards around the small table, laughing, talking low, the lamps hissing. Occasionally I heard a mouse, digging and chewing on the outer cabin wall next to my head. It was so peaceful, so complete. That memory is precious to me tonight.
A good friend in Atlanta used to remind me, “You can’t go home again.” I kept insisting that I could. Turns out we were both mostly right. I could go home for awhile, but then it went bad. See, the people are different now. Everything, I mean everything is going to change… especially in 45 years. In that, he was right… it wasn’t the same, and I guess I thought it would be. But I was also right, sort of … it was good, for awhile. The land hadn’t changed, and I had so missed the land. But the people had changed, and therein lies the difference. I might have been okay for awhile longer if the new people hadn’t changed Montana. But they did,
And so tonight, I miss you, Montana. I miss what you were, how you were, even why you were. The folks who lived there back then were partly responsible for what you were. And it’s painfully obvious to me that the folks who live there now are totally responsible for your demise. I am so grateful to have known the Montana that still exists in my heart and in my memory. The present residents will never know the old Montana, and that is truly their loss. They can look at it, they can marvel at its enduring beauty, but they don’t know how to actually live it, as we did. For a short, sweet time there, we didn’t just live in Montana, we were Montana. I guess the memory of all that will always be a source of pride, peace and pain… pride in having been a part of it, peace in the knowledge of how terrific life was back then, and pain in knowing how it has changed. Thanks, Conagher, for kicking all this up for me. Damn. I better have one more brandy if I want to get to sleep tonight.