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.”

Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)

 

Bozeman

It’s dark and late and we’re somewhere over Idaho. I’m guzzling tepid coffee and taking notes from Esquire, the “How to Be a Man” issue. I mean, that’s literally what I’m doing; don’t read into it—I just want to keep trivia and the sentences I like. The last few pages are short fiction. Watch how you make a girl love you, writes Marlon James. Call her ugly but say it sweet like brandy coat you tongue.

My seatmate is a bare-faced, softball-build blonde in plaid and pigtails. The steward asks her what she’d like to drink; she jams her thumb into a battered copy of Lonesome Dove and looks up. “Beer,” she says flatly. She could huck a hay bale, for sure. The little plane is shuddering in its descent, yes, but the sensation in my bones is one of trespass.

These are Ted Turner’s bison.

Having said that, downtown Bozeman has its own co-op grocery, two bookstores, and a Tibetan gift shop. While browsing a sale rack at Cactus Records I’m offered cocaine—I think—and later, on the sidewalk, a bumper sticker that reads “Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.” A perhaps overly Critical Mass of six young gutter rats on fixies hoists a cardboard sign urging me to “reclaim the streets,” though it’s really not clear, from the sedate procession of pickups down Main Street, from whom or what.

Indian paintbrush and lupine. Right?

So in the end what’s most foreign is also familiar: water. Lush landscapes are always a marvel to me, but I’d never realized how thoroughly the Golden State has sucked the moisture from my understanding of the backcountry. Even in earshot of streams chattering over rock, I fret and whine over the topo map. “There’ll be water there, right? We can get water there, right? That creek’s still running, right?” As I begin to accept this new world—that summer here is snowmelt, not scorched earth—its possibilities expand far beyond the trailhead. We could go anywhere.

But I’ve got work on Monday, of course, plus the mountains giveth and taketh away. Giveth water, in this case, taketh, I swear, pints on pints of blood via the most tenacious, ubiquitous, malicious mosquitoes I’ve ever fled.

The most reliable metric for happiness may be the shadows of clouds.

In the last mile, we yield the trail to an older man who surveys us from atop a glassy-eyed sorrel.

“See anybody?” he asks.

“Nope.”

“Good for you!”