Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 2

Or, altars, altars, everywhere
(Part 2)

(This list starts in Whitefish—part 1, here.)

6. The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

On the one hand there is the sound of chimes, now and then against the drone of a tractor in the adjacent hayfield. There is the symmetry and the neat white gravel, the prayer flags snapping in the wind on the hill, the reflexive reverence I feel at the foot of Prajnaparamita—that I feel, lest anyone think I’ve got religion, in the presence of anything beautiful and large. On the other hand, the plaques on each of the thousand Buddhas are inscribed in Comic Sans (“May all beings benefit”), and on the bench behind me a Botoxed blonde is pitching an elderly couple her e-book.

“I’m so glad that we met you,” the wife is saying. “We’ve heard about mindfulness and don’t know the first thing about where to start,” She is earnest and round—like Comic Sans, now that I think about it. Her husband is silent and grasping a cane. “You know, it’s funny,” answers Botox, “I could just tell you were Seeking™. It’s like, when you become receptive to the universe? These things begin to reveal themselves? You’re going to find the right people appear at the right time. And I am so excited to help you on your journey.”

“Here’s my card,” she concludes, a few minutes later. “I am so blessed to know you.”

7. Missoula

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I’m here for maybe 8 waking hours, and in cramming them full—I rent a bike, ride at Rattlesnake, survey campus, eat pastries at the hipster bakery, nurse my envy at Adventure Cycling HQ—I find I speak to almost no one.

But I watch them arrive at the “M” in the morning, a parade of sweaty early risers ascending the switchbacks. There are women in pairs, in yoga pants, intent. A family with two young children laughing and walking backwards. A girl jogging, barely, in front of her coach, who has a constant stream of advice on where and how to place her feet. A young man with a camera around his neck. An old man with dog that runs ahead.

The bulletin board at the trailhead has maps and phone numbers and a bit of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I shall be the gladdest thing under the sun / I shall touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.” I know it’s posted as an admonition, but since I know the whole poem I can’t take it that way and don’t.

8. Garnet Ghost Town

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Garnet was protected in part by my employer, reason enough, apparently, to drive 12 miles up a fire road to see it. The town has been preserved exactly the right amount, at a clever midpoint between unrecognizable ruins and stage-set contrivance. Inside the scattered buildings various artifacts are laid out like offerings to the future: single shoes, kitchen apparatus, tins of snuff. The old hotel rooms retain rusty iron bedsprings and peeling wallpaper, chipped sink-stands, and sure, perhaps the ghosts. The creak of the floorboards goes well with imagined piano.

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It’s easy to imagine this place getting grim in winter, but today the valley is bright and green, invites a picnic. The BLM will let you stay here for free if you’d like to volunteer: there are some refurbished cabins or a trailer, screened off by a fence against the anachronism. Or, if you like, you could stay in the town itself. “Girl tried that last year,” says the bearded man in the gift shop. “She didn’t reckon on the rats.”

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