I might as well apologize straight off. Finally cleaned out my storage space this summer with a huge help from my Betty. Thank you so much, Sweetie. We sold and got rid of myriad stuff, memories and family treasures, a big job and a necessary one. I pretty much let go of most of anything that reminded me of my previous life. Not always easy to do, but I’ve had some practice. For the most part, it gets easier with time.
There were some treasures I simply can’t part with, however… mostly pictures. Looking through them these past few weeks, and finding where they should be now kept, has been cathartic, and an immense ride down memory lane. My music career is, well, my music career and I know where all that goes. What keeps floating to the surface for me, in the morning, late at night, sometimes when I least expect it, is my relationship with, and to, Montana.
Our family’s Christmas card in 1949
It has surprised me, as I no longer miss Montana, I no longer want to visit there. By sitting down and analyzing it one evening, I realized I miss the old Montana, the Montana I knew as a kid, the Montana that once was. It has been a major part of my life, all my life. Looking at all my pictures of that still-magical Big Sky Country, I notice that, looking at its sweeping valleys and regal mountain ranges, it still looks exactly the same as it did 70 years ago. It’s kind of like seeing an old friend from a distance, thinking they still look the same, but up close they’ve changed in so many ways! Look too close at Montana today and you see fences, lots of them, and gates where there used to be none. And forget the political scene there… Mike Mansfield was the last of the good ones.
l think that somehow the strength of that land somehow braced me for hard times and rough challenges… maybe by osmosis or something, hell, I don’t know. But I know it’s still in there, bouncing around my brain like a colt that needs attention. And so, by god, I’m going to give it the attention it’s calling for, so that the old brain might rest once again, and I can sleep at night. Please forgive me for one more Montana post… I’ve got to do it.
Let’s start with a crazy, wonderful song by one of my all-time favorite writers and musicians, Hoyt Axton
Jeremiah was a bullfrog
Was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine
Singin’ joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
And if I were the king of the world
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the wars
And make sweet love to you
No, Jeremiah Wasn’t A Bullfrog…
Well, perhaps he was, but not the Jeremiah I want to talk about.
There’s something about Jeremiah Johnson and Little Big Man. I watch those movies and they slowly pull an entirely different personality out of me, and for a short time I’m not the guy I’ve been all my life. Pretty powerful thing for a movie to do, to anyone. Lonesome Dove does the same thing to me.
There’s this persona inside me, a much older, wiser man than I, with far more life experience, and having endured far more hardships than I. Not hard to explain, as I just finished watching Jeremiah Johnson for probably the sixth time, and am feeling that other, older dude again.
Jeremiah Johnson made his way into the mountains
Bettin’ on forgettin’ all the troubles that he knew
The trail was wide and narrow
And the eagle or the sparrow
Showed the path he was to follow as they flew.
A mountain man’s a lonely man
And he leaves a life behind
It ought to have been different, but oftimes you will find,
That the story doesn’t always go that way you had in mind.
Jeremiah’s story was that kind. . .
Jeremiah’s story was that kind.
An Indian says you search in vain for what you cannot find
He says you’ll find a thousand ways for runnin’ down your time
An Indian didn’t scream it, he said it in a song,
And he’s never been known to be wrong.
No, he’s never been known to be wrong.
The way that you wander
is the way that you choose
The day that you tarry
Is the day that you lose
Sunshine or thunder
A man will always wonder
Where the fair wind blows
Where the fair wind blows
Little Debbie, resting easy beside Alder Creek
Horses. Campfires. The smell of wet pine and sagebrush after an evening rain. A squirrel, scolding me through the timber. I don’t know who the hell this old guy inside me is, but he’s not me. But if not me, then who? It occurred to me that maybe growing up in Montana, and being around those old cowboys… but that ain’t it. Probably it’s the culmination of a thousand experiences in the Old West that I had growing up. Yes, a thousand because I can’t begin to count them all, or tell them all. But this “old man” in me must surely come from all those memories that spring to the surface when I see Jeremiah, Little Big Man or Lonesome Dove.
I never spent 10 hours in the saddle at a time, yet my body remembers the feel of a big horse beneath me, and how my butt hurt after just an hour or two. I never roped a cow, but I’ve stood at the edge of a corral where the cowboys were branding the calves. The heat, the dust and the bawling are ingrained in my memory. I never lived out in the mountains in the snow in the winter like Jeremiah, but I have built a fire in the snow, to warm my freezing feet and hands. I have sat in the circle with Montana’s Native Americans, with their chants and their homemade drums and rattles. I have sat in a dingy, smelly one-room house in the woods, listening, with my dad, to an old cowboy strumming an out-of-tune guitar and singing Hank Williams in his raspy, alcoholic voice.
I shot my first and only deer when I was 12, with a 300 Savage Dad had given me. On another hunt the next season, I was lost in the high timber for 3 hours until I crossed my dad’s tracks in the snow and followed them back to the Jeep. I have sat by many a campfire, some of them on Alder Creek in Montana; some in the hills of Georgia, and some on the beach in Southern Peru.
I guess my most memorable campfire was the one about 8 miles northwest of Virginia City. It was the summer of ’64, a magical summer in so many ways. This particular night, however, about a dozen of us huddled around a big fire in an old deserted mining camp and roasted large slabs of elk that Dave had poached earlier in the week. A bottle of Jim Beam was passed around the campfire, and no one refused it. Someone was playing a soft guitar, a near perfect night in the Montana mountains.
Betty and I often laugh at my once calling myself “a mountain man.” Good god! One late afternoon in the middle of winter, I did what my snowmobiling pals told me to never do. I hopped on my sled around 3 p.m. and headed up the Alder Gulch road in a driving snowstorm, knowing full well there was only about an hour of daylight left. It came from a realization that I had been being a little too careful recently, and needed to loosen up, get more adventurous. I rode 4 miles in, stopped and got off the sled and walked around through the nearby trees, listening to the wind and feeling the snowflakes on my head and face. However, I left the engine running, as an attempted walk back to town in that weather, and in the dark, would have been my undoing, and I wasn’t anxious to carry this “loosening up” to that extreme.
Well now, wait just a damn minute here. Maybe I wasn’t a mountain man per se, but by god I chainsawed and split my own winter firewood for 6 years, before I finally ran out of steam. I ran across a friend down in Sheridan one day and told him I was done cutting my own wood, at 67. He just laughed. “Hell, I quit that shit when I turned 45!”
So many times I was out fishing the Madison or Ruby River with my folks. We had a bad habit of drifting downstream from our Land Cruiser, getting caught in a sudden rain storm and having to stumble our way back to the Cruiser, soaked and shivering, sometimes in the dark And that usually meant one thing, that we’d be heading over to the Alder Steak House for a few warmer-uppers and the best steak in the West.
How could Montana not possibly be an inseparable part of me when I have changed a flat tire in the dead of night in a driving blizzard, ice skated on frozen Blue Lake on a below-zero day, or spent two summers working in a gold mine drift ? And in my later years, to spend weeks at a time at my solitary campsite along Alder Creek, sipping my brandy by the evening’s fire, watching the Milky Way drift dramatically overhead, wondering what spirits of the old miners and pioneers must surely be swooping about my campsite, perhaps remembering sitting in this very spot, poking at their campfire, 150 years ago?
“I don’t know why I act the way I do
Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose
Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy
I guess that’s just the cowboy in me
I got a life that most would love to have
But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad
At where this road I’m heading down might lead
I guess that’s just the cowboy in me
The urge to run, the restlessness
The heart of stone I sometimes get
The things I’ve done for foolish pride
The me that’s never satisfied
The face that’s in the mirror when I don’t like what I see
I guess that’s just the cowboy in me
Girl, I know there’s times you must have thought
There ain’t a line you’ve drawn I haven’t crossed
But you set your mind to see this love on through
I guess that’s just the cowboy in you
We ride and never worry about the fall
I guess that’s just the cowboy in us all”
Songwriters: Al Anderson / Craig Michael Wiseman / Jeffrey Steele
Can’t you feel it… at least a little bit?
The old cowboy within me smiles, and remembers. I smile with him, not knowing why he dwells within me, not knowing why he’s so strong in me sometimes… I suspect that many of my Montana experiences, along with those wonderful Western movies, have piled up in me somehow to create this crusty old bastard that I might have been, that I might have wanted to secretly be… hell, that I might yet become.