Eight years ago, during a period of time I now refer to as The Retired Years, my son Alec and I made a pilgrimage of sorts, to Montana. I had grown up a thousand miles removed from the Big Sky, but had remained connected through biannual visits - road trips - to see my grandparents, uncles, aunts and a hundred unknown cousins. My grandparents, Rex and Grace, were celebrating their sixtieth anniversary, an event which would revolve around a prime rib dinner at a remote steakhouse. It would be an opportunity to shape my son's character with a few cultivated, fond memories.
I rented a Nissan SUV at the airport in Billings. I had a few ideas about this trip, and thought we might need four wheel drive. The first off-road opportunity presented itself on the lip of the Rimrock, above the city, when I pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Yellowstone County Museum. Housed in a genuine log cabin, the museum contained your standard historical museum fare, horse-drawn vehicles, the implements of land-clearing, an impressive chamberpot collection. I'll admit a small thrill went through me when, upon examining a case of handmade knives, I spied a yellow-handled specimen crafted by my Mom's brother, Uncle Bob, in Helena. Alec had never met Uncle Bob, but the glass box containing the stuffed two-headed calf was pleasant consolation.
Logan International Airport and the museum sit atop a plateau, from which, in warmer months, Billings, three hundred feet below, is a fluffy green carpet of shade trees, obscuring the streets and homes beneath. We had arrived several days before the anniversary, my intent being to have some father and son adventures before the familial commitments. I took a few moments, at the log cabin, to plunder a rack of brochures and pamphlets, which touted the region's many wonders. In the car, as we descended from the Rimrock, I slapped the stack in Alec's lap. Leafing through the information, Alec announced that he wanted to visit the zoo.
"Where is it?" The only zoo I knew of in Montana used to be in Red Lodge, which I had only visited once, decades ago, with my cousins. Rumor had it that is was finally closed down when the peacock and mule deer finally died. I took the pamphlet, steering with my knee along the edge of the precipice, and examined the tiny map, with an occasional glance to the road.
Interstate-90 barely kisses Billings, skirting the southern margin of civilization, with a wild river, campgrounds, range land, beckoning from the opposite side. Zoo Montana is conveniently located right beside this freeway, at exit 443, and I imagined long-haul truckers gratefully coasting down the off-ramp, with a mind to stretch their legs, to stroll from the bald eagles to the grizzlies, their last break having been Wall Drug, in South Dakota. We arrived in minutes, and parked at the outer edge, by a prairie dog colony dug into a landscaped berm.
I assumed the prairie dogs were part of the zoo, but when I asked the girl at the ticket window about them, she hissed through her lipstick. "Pests! They're wild. We can't get rid of 'em, nothing works."
As zoos go, it was pretty modest. Deer were over-represented, and the local television station was taping a news item, surrounded by a pointing crowd, at a grotto where a new-born mountain goat kid was already leaping from concrete rock to concrete rock. Peacocks wandered freely, stalked by unsupervised children. At the black-footed ferret exhibit, we learned that prairie dogs were the prey of the endangered weasels, and I savored the irony of a solution to their parking lot pest problem, so close at hand. An enormous Siberian tiger lounged in the shade. Alec selected a mylar snake kite in the gift shop.
Back at the car, we watched the prairie dogs bob up and down in their burrows. Randomly, they'd pop up, look around, and scamper backwards into their hole if we spoke or moved. "I can catch one, you know..." I said it casually, waiting for Alec to bite.
"You can not. They're way too fast," Not quite the enthusiastic interest I'd hoped for.
"Watch me." I measured out some string from the reel of kite line, cutting it with my Leatherman. It took a moment to knot it into a noose. "I'm going to snare one." Alec looked around, torn between the mischief at hand and his inherent fear of getting in trouble. The parking lot was almost empty, as closing time approached. I could tell that he was weighing the various risks, but I knew he was game when his shoulders visibly relaxed.
My son watching, I arranged the loop around the closest hole, and carefully payed out the string as I backed away from the snare. We crouched on the asphalt, in the glare of the Montana sun, waiting for our an opportunity to bag our chosen prey. Several times, a prairie dog's head, presumably the same one, peeked out of the hole, only to instantly disappear. We waited, and I sensed Alec's patience for this endeavor evaporating. Then, at the mouth of the burrow, our prairie dog was standing full upright, our presence forgotten.
I yanked on the string, and the contest was on: the vigilant instincts of self-preservation pitted against the cunning intelligence of man, the hunter. I was confident that I'd be fast enough to catch the animal around his chest, but I pulled so sharply that the rodent flew through the air, snatched from its den with a squeak. It landed at our feet, and immediately scurried toward the safety of the dirt beside the parking lot. I reeled in the the slack line, pulling the prairie dog up short. The noose had tightened around its neck, and the animal darted sideways, describing a six-foot arc around us, scampering, squeaking.
"You're hurting it! You're hurting it!" Alec was dancing around, arms in the air, trying not to step on the frightened animal. I continued to reel it in, and eventually a foot of string separated the rodent and my hand. Concerned that the noose around its neck might choke it, I eased the tension on the line. The rodent crouched flat on the pavement, heaving from its recent exertion, resigned to death.
"You killed it!" His voice was shrill, and now I was nervously glancing around the parking lot.
"No, I didn't," I spoke calmly, in a low tone. Keeping the string in my hand taut, controlling the head, the biting end, I gently scooped up the animal with my other hand. It made no effort to defend itself, and I wondered if I had been able to catch it because it was sick, somehow diseased. It was tiny, just six inches long, a pup, and I felt a fleeting pang of guilt. "It's soft... Do you want to touch it? They make great pets, I hear."
"They carry diseases. I learned about it in school. They make horrible pets." Alec was backing away. "I can't believe you're touching it..." His face was bunched up into squinting disgust. Later, I read that prairie dogs do, indeed, carry diseases, among them tularemia and something known as monkeypox. Oh, and plague. Yes, that plague: the flea-borne pestilence that wiped out half of medieval Europe, the gruesome black death, characterized by buboes, swollen and infected lymph glands.
I released it at the opening to its burrow. It lay there for a moment, dazed, confused, possibly whispering a prairie dog prayer of thanks, and then - zip - it was gone. I wondered where I might wash my hands.
We checked into a motel in Laurel, a crossroads of highway and railway, best remembered by the not-totally-unpleasant, sulphurous smell emitted by the oil refinery. For a brief time, in my early childhood (The Toddler Years)
I lived there, but, mainly, I recall driving through Laurel, on the way to somewhere else, past the Owl Cafe, the iconic neon sign visible from the back seat of the Rambler. A quick trip to the IGA for "provisions" yielded another history lesson in the sepia-tone photographs of pioneer-era Laurel. Before paved roads, motorcars, running water, the town was a collection of unpainted Wild West buildings, surrounded by a sagebrush wasteland. As far as the camera could see. The grocery store visit was doubly satisfying when the checker carded me for the beer in my basket, causing me to speculate that, perhaps, thirty-six year old men work harder and age faster beneath a Montana sun.
Nobody knew we were already in the "Treasure State", and the next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Owl Cafe, soaking in the country music, panelled ambiance, gorging on cholesterol, in the form of perfect bacon and eggs. Montana, especially Carbon County, is world-renowned for its rich fossil record, and my secret plan for the day was to drive into the hills east of Bridger, for some rock hounding. We had to drive down the highway past the family farmstead, between Edgar and Fromberg. When we zoomed by, without stopping, it all began to feel a little sneaky.
We turned at the only stoplight in Bridger, crossed the river, and bounced along the dirt road, through miles of fenced land, posted "No Trespassing". Eventually, we encountered open range land and climbed out of the Nissan, by a creek (properly pronounced "crick"), hoping to find exposed fossils - anything, leaves, even - in the eroded banks. Clad in sandals, we stepped gingerly through the sagebrush, wary of ticks and snakes. The few patches of unvegetated rock proved to be igneous or metamorphic something or other, completely devoid of remains.
"You said there would be fossils."
"I know, and there are. Velociraptors, T. Rexes... snails. They just aren't here
." The sun was nearly overhead and I was feeling like a genius for bringing the jug of water I had bought the night before. We took long gulps from the jug, cold water dribbling down our shirts. "Do you want to keep looking?"
"Naw. Maybe tomorrow. I'm getting hungry." It was agreed: maybe tomorrow. We headed back to town, a cloud of dust spiraling in our wake.
"Is that a snake?" I slowed as we drew closer to the object in the road. It was
a snake, stretched straight out, like a short section of fat broom handle. We got out, and cautiously approached the dead reptile in the road. I wondered what the locals would think if they came upon us, poking at the roadkill. Word might get around. I imagined the story being repeated until it came caught up with me via my Uncle Ervin, who would shake his head, and ask, "Was that really you fooling with a dead snake?" He would shake his head, incredulous, "Never seen a dead snake before, I guess." We hadn't seen any other vehicles, no driveways to hidden houses, but I couldn't believe that I had run this animal over. It was recently dead, lacking the thick coating of dust any corpse would quickly accumulate on this road. There was certainly nothing of interest between these two hills to have distracted my attentiveness. Maybe I had
killed it, if, perhaps, the pale green-brown serpent had been camouflaged by a trick of the sun .
I bent to pick it, grasping where the rattle met the tail. "Dad..." I lifted it and dangled it at arm's length, holding the limp body at eye level, regarding the dull, lifeless eyes. "DAD!" Slowly, the snake's mouth opened, wide, fangs out and downward, the body stiffening.
"Holy..." In the fraction of the moment it took for the snake to hit the ground, with a thud like a dropped, but armed, grenade, we dashed to opposite shoulders of the road, from where we surveyed each other, and the snake, in turn.
It lay on its side, mouth open, looking very much dead. I knew rattlesnakes were crafty, and this was clearly a trick, a ruse to teach a lesson to molesting humans. Rocks littered the ditch behind me, and I selected one, the size of a bowling ball, tipping it carefully, lest another snake lurked underneath. I approached the snake from the tail, and heaved the rock, underhand, in the direction of the head. It missed and rolled, wobbling, several feet before stopping. Acutely aware of my vulnerable toes, I hefted the stone and slowly advanced, eyes on the exposed fangs. I splayed my sandalled feet, hopefully beyond striking distance, thrust the rock out from my body, and released my grip, teetering with the sudden change in balance. The rock landed, with a soft crunch, squarely on the reptile's head.
"Why did you do that?" Alec remained at his post, on the side of the road.
"Watch." I unfolded my knife, pulled the tail taut, the dangerous teeth securely pinned under the rock, and sawed at the flesh until I held the rattle in my hand. It felt papery, and I gently rolled it between my fingers before tucking it into my shirt pocket for safe keeping. Mindful of the hazard I had created, I rolled the rock off the road with my foot.
We were back on the highway before I reached into my pocket, producing the hard-won rattle. "Do you want to hold it?"
"No," said Alec. I put it away, grimacing, making the same face my dad used to make when I was a kid. "Gross," he added.
After another meal at the Owl Cafe, sandwiches this time, we found ourselves back in Billings. We tracked down the house on Princeton Avenue that my parents had purchased shortly before moving to Washington, when I was four years old. Tidy, clad in aluminum siding, I couldn't reconcile it with the image of the house my mom had described: stucco with parquet floors. It looked so ordinary, yet mom had been very proud; My parents had rented for years afterward, before they bought another home.
I wanted to knock on the door, but we remained in the car, and Alec leafed through the tourist information I had collected the day before. "What's Boot Hill Cemetery?" I vaguely recalled visiting a pioneer graveyard, years ago, with my grandparents. The tiny map on the leaflet showed the historical site just minutes away, and we found it easily enough, a low mount surrounded by gas stations, light industry, a muffler shop. According to the pamphlet, the highlight of the tour was the grave of Muggins Taylor, a military scout, who had carried the news of the 7th Calvery's defeat at Little Bighorn, all the way to the telegraph station at Bozeman. He had stumbled across the battle site, and discovered General Custer's body by accident.
Dating from 1877, originally the municipal cemetery of Coulson, MT, a town long gone, swallowed by modern-day Billings, Boot Hill rose gently above the highways on each of its three sides. The graveyard had all the ambiance of an abandoned lot, weedy, and abundantly populated by our new friend, the prairie dog. We strolled the well-travelled tracks between the graves, flushing grasshoppers, examining the leaning crosses, which had been fashioned from unusually dark boards, perhaps the product of a woodshop teacher or boy scouts. At some of the plots, the earth was slightly mounded, and I wondered how deeply the remains were interred, whether or not they were in coffins.
The prairie dogs, hard to see in the scrub, had been busy. Their tunnels were everywhere, excavated without regard to grave or path. An idea, repugnant at first, popped into my head: might a prairie dog inadvertently exhume an item of jewelry, a ring, for example?
I stifled the tiny inner voice suggesting, "grave robbing", and toed the pile of dirt at the entrance to a burrow. It contained an assortment of pebbles, but yielded nothing of value. We ambled down the line, reading the dates on the markers.
One cross, engraved, Girl, 1889 - 1892,
caught my attention. Who was this three-year old, and exactly which of the hundreds of possible ends did this pioneer child meet? Typhus? Smallpox? A trampling by buffalo? The grave was obviously smaller than the others, and delineated by a slightly different, sparser, vegetation. In the middle of the hump, a prairie dog had deposited a conical pile of soil around the entrance to its warren, a moon crater in miniature.
Alec wandered away, clearly bored. I stepped forward, beside the tiny grave, keeping an eye on my son, the morning's rattlesnake fresh in my memory. The burrow appeared to angle steeply downward when I peered into the opening of the animal's den. Stooping, the pile of debris was easy to reach, and I sifted through it with my fingers. In addition to the numerous squarish, dice-sized stones and dirt clods, two items surfaced, yellowed, ancient. I plucked them from the scattered pile, standing up.
"Dad? What are you doing?" Alec had wandered back to where I had stopped.
"Look, bones." I thrust out my palm, stepping forward.
bones? Gross!" I was getting tired of hearing that word. So, how was your visit to Montana, Alec?
. So far, the baby cow with two heads, back at the museum, was the highlight of this trip.
I withdrew my hand, and examined the fragments. "I'm pretty sure this one's a patella, you know, a kneecap. This other one," holding it up, in the sun, "I think it's from the wrist or ankle." I slide them into the pocket with the snake rattle. Aside from almost being bitten by a venomous reptile, I was fairly pleased with the day's yield.
"Dad, that was a person," he gaped at me, arms akimbo, "and now she's in your pocket. Gross."
I changed the subject: "You hungry?"
Meals with the relatives promised copious beef, and I half-way dreaded meating
up with them. Driving around Billings, seeking an alternative, I passed up the steak houses, burger shacks. A thousand miles from any ocean, common sense suggested that we forgo the restaurant that Alec spotted, with the neon "sushi" sign in the window. The parking lot was packed, which bode well; the wait for a table was brief.
The menu offered Korean, Japanese, and Chinese dishes, much like the place where I first tasted sushi, and I was pleasantly surprised that the seats were mostly filled by people of an Asian persuasion. We waited for our edamame
and, furtively, I fished the bones out for another look.
Setting down his tiny cup of steaming tea, Alec leaned forward, whispered, "I hope you get...", he narrowed his eyes, "Haunted!"
The carefree days I hoped to have for covert adventure had slipped away. We were racing in the Nissan, past irrigated circles of green, soldiered ranks of enormous idle tractors, to find the "Feedlot" (really) steakhouse, in tiny Shepherd, Montana. Literally at a crossroads on the way to somewhere else, this steakhouse was legendary in the Billings area, and my family's relationship to beef cattle made it an obvious choice for an anniversary banquet. Played upon the scale of the Big Sky landscape, my innate propensity to dawdle and lack of planning found me late again.
Ultimately, I drove too far in one direction, and then in another. With gazetteer in lap, I circled in on the restaurant like a plane making its final approach. The parking lot was full and, ushered by a smiling hostess, we slunk into the banquet room to find everyone already seated. That we were in sport coats with ties, while the majority of men wore jeans and colorful, striped rodeo shirts only served to magnify our tardiness. We took the empty seats reserved for us and thick slabs of prime rib were placed before us.
Considered numerically, most of my family - certainly my Dad's family - live in Montana. A long time ago, I appreciated how risky and rebellious it was for my parents to move a thousand miles away from family and farm. Not that my Dad ever had much interest in farming, but I believe it made a firm statement about self-determination and Independence. Looking back, I relish the memories of growing up in Bellingham, but I sense that there is a void in my being which is only filled when I am in this wild place, surrounded by these strong people.
When my parents opted to live "on the coast", by the "ocean", I think they forged a tiny personal legend, a small epic tale in the minds of Montana friends and family. Many times, when I was young, I patiently explained to cousins and kids that I lived in the other
Washington, the state.
I related how I attended school with hundreds of children, in
a world where rain fell abundantly, absent the dramatic climatary extremes under a Big Sky. My daily life was so different, so alien, my values tempered by "city living" and liberal politics, I felt like a curious oddity.
You're Larry's boy?" Across from me, a weathered man I did not recognize. "This must be Alex. I hear you can make a frog sound."
There it was; I knew this was coming. In the minds of my kin I had been reduced to an interloper with a dubious talent, my own personal legend elicited in my very first conversation at the table. I strained to put a name to his face.
"I'm sorry," I said, extending my hand over the beef, "I'm afraid I don't..." Growing up, much of my peripheral family existed primarily as binary abstractions, paired with the names of siblings or spouses: Lowell and Lyle, Leo and Buela, Howard and Joanie. When he explained who he was I was able to conjure his wife's name from some dusty corner of my brain.
"Yes, this is Alec," anticpating the next question, "He's ten."
"Can you still make that frog sound?"
"Oh, that was years ago..." I cleared my throat experimently, hefting my voice, half-way hoping the exquisite sound was forthcoming. "Nope. It's gone."
Truth be told, sometimes I can
still make the frog sound, but it's a geriatric frog with arthritis, not the bright, shrill spring peeper my youthful vocal cords once produced. In fifth grade, I rode the train to Montana alone, and entertained myself with the sounds of inexplicable amphibians in the club car. My long-lost second uncle related this story to the table, essential details intact, only embelishing the narrative with a train porter (pantomiming a wide-eyed comic black man) trying in vain to find the frog.
"Yep, that's pretty much how it happened," I allowed. Crap. I am still
that feller from War
shington who can make a frog sound.
"Well, what have you boys been doing in Montana?" Not wanting to divulge that we had arrived early, I mentioned the sights we had seen in Billings, omitting the rattlesnake episode in the hills. Perhaps Alec's face twisted in horror, which might have prevented me, had I looked, from: first, sharing the details of our visit to Boot hill cemetary, and second, producing actual human remains at the dinner table.
"Huh... Well, that is
something." Judging by reactions, I gather I am now the graverobber from War
shington who can make a frog sound.
We moved outside to a stone patio for pictures after the meal. Gammpa was sitting in a chair against the wall, in the light of the dipping sun.
"It's Doctor IQ," He's called me that since I can remember. "Did you have some trouble finding the place?"
"Yeah, sort of. Gramma gave me directions..."
"Are you going to blame your Gramma?" Like a slap.
"No." Chastened, I glanced downward. I was
going to blame my Gramma: at the last minute I had asked her how to get there, and she had only the vaguest idea. "I was running late and tried to wing it. I didn't realize how far it was."
"Well, you found it. You and Alex."
After posing in some group photographs, I wandered over to where my cousins were gathered around a cold firepit. Unlike my uncles and aunts - my temperate older relatives - they clutched bottles of beer and cocktails, swirling the ice in the plastic cups between sips. As the eldest grandchild (The Solitary Years
), I had always found myself stuck between the generations, relating more to the parents of my younger cousins. These people were adults now, and they seemed like more fun than the stern stock of farm folk that spawned them.
We chatted and laughed in the evening air, swatting at mosquitoes. I balmed my tension with an ice-cold Martini in a Dixie cup. The kids were playing tag in the parking lot, and I could hear Alec's laugh as he evaded capture.
I stopped at the cemetary, at the base of the Rimrock, on the way to the airport. Alec looked at me, skeptically.
"What are we doing?"
"C'mon, you'll see."
He trudged behind me, watching as I stooped to pick up a stick in the dirt. It took a couple of minutes to find the grave marked "Girl". I pulled the tiny bones from my pocket and dropped them into the prairie dog burrow, pushing them deep into the hole with the stick. With my sandalled foot, I carefully collapsed the opening and smoothed the soil over the surface.
When we got back to the Nissan, Alec said, "Thanks, Dad. I'd hate it if you were haunted the rest of your life."