What progress looks like to me

Self-portrait in the Hilton Garden Inn men’s room before my talk to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana statewide gathering.

Last Friday night, I spoke at the opening dinner of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Montana’s annual gathering, held this year in Great Falls, Montana.

When Nancy Hanford, the president of the Montana GFWC, asked me several months ago to talk to her group, she suggested talking about my recently re-released debut novel, 600 HOURS OF EDWARD. When I began looking into what the GFWC actually does, I was inspired to go in another direction. Name just about any progressive undertaking, and these clubs — which exist nationwide — are likely to be at the forefront. In Montana, specifically, they have built and funded libraries, worked tirelessly on behalf of children’s literacy, supported the Montana Talking Book Library (a particular passion of Hanford’s) — heck, even promoted white lines on the highway. If you live in a town with enough population to be concerned about general welfare and good things are happening there, it’s a good bet a women’s club is behind it.

So this is what I said …

The picture of Dad I showed at the GFWC gathering in Great Falls. I’m pretty sure he wears the 49ers cap just to irritate me.

This is my dad, Ron Lancaster. He was born on June 14, 1939, in a house in Conrad. He spent most of his formative years on a Fairfield Bench dairy farm, about 20 minutes from where we are right now.

He’s not smiling in this picture, although I can report to you that he was plenty happy. We were at the Alpine Casino in Billings, about to have fish and chips on a Friday. It’s one of Dad’s small pleasures in life.

Life has been long for Dad—much longer than he ever expected it would be—and it’s been hard, and on that count, he and I don’t have much in common. Mine has been a happy life in which I’ve been encouraged to run hard at my dreams, and he deserves some of the credit for that, along with my mother and my stepfather. And while I appreciate that about him, I often fret about the ways in which we find it nearly impossible to connect. I can’t talk to him about the books I read as a child that filled my heart. I have difficulty explaining to him what I do or how I do it. We never got close over throwing a football around or talking about sports teams or father-and-son campouts. Most of my relationship with him has been forged in the past 20 years, when I’ve been an adult.

But every now and again, I find my way to him. More often than not, it’s through the power of story. I want to tell you about that.

The matter of Dad’s schooling is a bit of a mystery. My mother, who married him in 1964 and divorced him nine tough years later, thinks that he received no more than a fourth-grade education. A cousin who knew him as a child thinks it’s closer to eighth grade, but in any case, school was an infrequent factor in his life. He is, in all likelihood, dyslexic, and I can guarantee you nobody in his young life recognized that. Reading has always been an unpleasant, unsatisfying chore for him, one made all the more difficult now because his eyes are nearly gone thanks to the macular degeneration that started working on him 20 years ago.

And still, Dad loves a story.

Like most of us, he’s interested in his own tale, but in many ways it’s one of such infinite sadness—a father he barely knew, a mother who withheld love, a stepfather who beat him viciously—that he’ll speak of it only in certain circumstances. Liquor is sometimes good at loosening his tongue. So, too, was a trip we made to the Fairfield Bench a few years ago so he could lay eyes on that dairy farm for the first time in 50 years.

It’s one of life’s poetic twists that he ended up with a son who has boundless curiosity and a penchant for language. For much of my life, I’ve been accumulating the dribs and drabs of narrative that he’s provided, seeking out people who knew him and mining their memories, and, now, in an Internet age, seeing what public documents have to say. Some years ago, I was able to find out what happened to Dad’s father, Fred Lancaster. I tracked him to a little hilltop cemetery in Madras, Oregon. I found a house he once lived in, occupied by the son-in-law of the woman Fred married late in life. That led to pictures of the grandfather I’d never seen and the man his own son barely remembered. The Social Security Administration gave us a copy of Fred’s application, filled out in pencil by the semi-literate hands of a working man. I took these things to my father and said “This is your story.” It brought me closer to him, something for which I yearned then and still yearn today.

After Dad left the Navy in the early sixties and settled down with my mom, he became an exploratory well digger, a line of endeavor that proved to be both the fulfillment of his greatest promise and the collapse of his fortunes. The child who’d known poverty and abuse became a self-made man in the most glorious manifestation of the phrase, a man who succeeded beyond any dream he’d ever had through the power of his own work ethic. Drilling gave him a community of peers and a means of identifying himself to the world, and few people needed that as badly as my father did. He also lived as the nouveau riche so often do, never saving, always accumulating, with the unspoken certainty that he would be dead before his spendthrift ways mattered. Life tends to be cruel to those who hold such delusions; at 73 years old, he’s lived far longer than his brother, sister, mother or father ever did, and most of his friends are long gone, too. Dad goes on, with his little pension in a little condominium in Billings, with his dog, Sausage, his memories, and his bewilderment at what life has become. And I’m there with him, nearly every day, maintaining our connection and cultivating another story, the one that belongs to us.

When my folks split in 1973, I was 3 years old, and I was an unruly child, one whose desires were pretty much indulged by a father who was rarely there and a mother who wanted out of her marriage and out of a crappy, cramped little existence in Mills, Wyo. A new man in her life, my stepfather, Charles Clines, whisked us away to his home in Texas, and at long last, stability set in. For nine months a year, I lived with Mom and Charles in a leafy, tree-themed subdivision, a bucolic world of school, friends, family dinners and intellectual curiosity. Every summer, I would fly to some outpost in the West where my Dad was working, so he could see this boy who was rapidly being formed in the image of another man. I would live on the periphery of Dad’s life—rough and tumble, nomadic, alcohol-soaked—but never really in it. Whatever I saw, whatever I experienced, would be packaged up and packed away into my memories at the end of the summer, when another plane would take me home to Texas and its crushing suburban normalcy.

I didn’t know it then, but all the while, I was gathering string—bits and pieces of memory and perspective that would come screaming to the forefront of my brain in my 30s, when I began writing fiction and honoring Hemingway’s timeless wisdom of writing what you know. I used to judge my father harshly for all the things he wasn’t, for all the ways he left me wanting his time, attention and wisdom. I know now that he was giving me an unconventional gift. He was helping me to understand how different people can be, how our backgrounds and our tragedies can shape us but not ultimately define us. One of the great aspects of our human sovereignty is this: The power to be what we want rests largely in our hands. My father has far exceeded the quality of the men who gave example to his young life. He’s kinder than they were. He’s wiser than they were. And he’s tougher, much, much tougher, than they were. He’s still here, still taking his swings at life every day.

Dad has given me stories, and in return, I’ve tried to give stories back to him. The work your clubs do on behalf of the Montana Talking Book Library specifically, and on behalf of literacy and children’s welfare in general, is vital and life-giving, and it hits home in a particular way for Dad and for me. As I said before, reading is a chore for Dad, but thanks to the Montana Talking Book Library, it doesn’t have to be. When he tires of my stories, or his own, he can listen to an almost limitless number of other tales. The ability I have to download a book and carry it to my father for his own listening enjoyment fills my heart. It’s given us another pathway to each other, another thing we can share as the two of us—he in his dotage, I in my middle age—try to bridge the gaps that time and circumstance put between us.

So thank you, so much, for all that you do for people like my father, and for letting me tell you my story, and his story, tonight.

After that, I read the first chapter of 600 HOURS OF EDWARD, which hints broadly at the father-son story to come, a major theme of that book and the forthcoming sequel, EDWARD ADRIFT. The audience laughed at all the right places, a nice counterbalance to the more somber notes that preceded it. And that’s life, you know. It’ll break your heart and build it back up again, sometimes in the course of a single evening.

Gigs? Turns out I have gigs

Since I came home from the Montana Festival of the Book back in October, it’s been a quiet few months on the get-out-and-yak-about-books front, and that hasn’t been entirely unwelcome. For one thing, I managed to shove the short-story collection out the door. For another, I managed to move to a new house. For yet another, I managed to write another novel (or a draft of one, anyway). What I’m saying is, I haven’t wanted for things to do.

And still, I have things to do. Fun things, thankfully:

The Great Falls Public Library.

On March 29th, I’ll be at the Great Falls Public Library as part of The Great Falls Festival of the Book. I’ll be doing an event with my friend and colleague Ed Kemmick that is being billed as, wait for it, “An Evening With Ed Kemmick and Craig Lancaster.” This is my favorite kind of event, and it’s not even close. Being able to get together with people who truly love books and share stories with them … I can’t think of anything book-related that’s more fun. (Did I sufficiently hedge that statement?)

The Great Falls Public Library is at 301 2nd Ave. North, and the fun begins at 7 p.m.

With Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis during one of my dashes across the state.

And then, on Tuesday, April 17th, I’ll be at one of the grandest independent bookstores you’d ever hope to find: The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. I’ll be reading from Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I might even work in a selection from my current work in progress. Who knows?

The Country Bookshelf is at 28 W. Main Street in Bozeman. That event, too, begins at 7.


Brandon Oldenburg, right, in a screengrab shamefully stolen from a classmate.

I was neck-deep in the day (er, night) job during the Oscars telecast, but I couldn’t miss the excitement as my Facebook feed burbled with the news about Brandon Oldenburg winning for his work on the short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.”

Oldenburg is an alum of my high school. I didn’t know him — mine was a big-box high school — but I sure am proud of him. (And I loved the fact that he wore a tuxedo made by Dickies to the show.)

Q&A: Jason Skipper

“Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history …”

Jason Skipper

When I first heard about Hustle, the debut novel from Jason Skipper, I was intrigued, to say the absolute least. Here’s a guy who’s from the same part of the world as I am (Texas), writing about fathers and sons (a common milieu for me) and the way those relationships, when they’re difficult, repel and attract, constantly drawing men who love and hate each other together, then driving them apart.

It’s my own weird combination of manic energy and peripatetic attention that has kept me from reading Hustle, but thanks to the connection of Facebook, I’ve been watching closely as Jason has embarked on a backbreaking schedule of travel to put this book in front of readers, and I knew he was someone I wanted to feature here. I shot him questions while he was on the road, he promised to get to them, and he turned out to be a man of his word. The interview exceeded my considerable expectations, and I can’t wait to read this book.

I bet you won’t be able to wait, either.

Give us the skinny on Hustle. Where did the idea come from, and how long did you work on it before you started looking for a publisher?

Hustle developed from short stories I wrote that stemmed from my life. Like the central character Chris, I grew up in Texas selling shrimp from a van on the side of the road for my con artist grandfather and my father. Those earlier pieces were closer to my personal experiences, like being taught how to hustle people, dealing with my grandfather’s alcoholism, and my family’s financial struggles. My childhood crush on Olivia Newton John and the movie Xanadu. But the characters began to speak and act on their own, and through revision I started writing toward the patterns and underlying ideas I saw emerging, like Chris’s development as an artist, concepts related to masculinity, and struggles with disease and illness, until eventually the events of these characters’ lives were pretty much their own. The first draft of Hustle, written as stories from multiple characters’ points of view, took four years. I revised for five more years, cutting some parts and expanding others, eventually weaving it into a first-person novel, which is the book as it now stands. I submitted it to agents off and on throughout that time, but eventually landed it with a publisher on my own. I had writer friends help me out – Kyle Minor, who directed me to Press 53, and Ann Pancake, who gave my editor, Robin Miura, and publisher, Kevin Watson, a slight nudge to read it. Then, after nine long years, came the magical call at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning.

The story centers on three generations of men and, according to your publisher’s website, is a “coming-of-age story (that) explores the ways people struggle to fulfill their wants and desires–and what they are willing to sacrifice to feel free.” What drew you to the family dynamics, and particularly the interplay among men, in this story?

I believe most stories are about the struggle for connection, and I am particularly drawn to dynamics between parents and children. People tend to believe that these relationships are inherent and the connection is, or should be, unconditional. So, particularly for the children, when that relationship is strained or nonexistent, it affects their sense of self worth, which manifests throughout their lives in many ways. Funny, heartbreaking, and destructive ways. With Hustle, I became interested in the blind devotion that many sons maintain for their difficult fathers. For example, when Wrendon is driving Chris to Florida to kidnap Buddy to rescue him from a drinking binge, Chris asks why they are going, since Wrendon hasn’t talked to his father in ten years. Wrendon responds by saying, “Because, what kind of son lets his father die like that?” and then he answers his own question: “No kind of son.” Wrendon feels this devotion, and he expects it from Chris. When Wrendon doesn’t get it later on in the book, he knows how to work Chris, to get it out of him – poking at his soft voice, his desire to be an artist, ways he doesn’t fit the portrait of a typical male kid. But I honestly don’t think this sort of manipulation is so unusual. We see it in families all the time, and it gets passed down from one generation to the next. These people just happen to also make a career of it.

On the other hand, in this book, you have Chris’s mother, who doesn’t hustle at all, and she tries – to an almost destructive degree – to be honest and to keep things together, which also affects and shapes the type of person Chris becomes. She is a counterpoint to Wrendon, a direct contradiction. I think we find ourselves within contradictions, so this is part of Chris’s development in discovering the type of person he will become, raised within all of this tension. As I’ve met more people who have read the book, this relationship between Emily and Chris comes up frequently, as well as his relationships with the many other people – “unreliable mentors,” as Charles Baxter called them – who come and go throughout Chris’s life.

Your biography notes that you’ve been a bartender, a snowboard instructor and a freelance journalist. How do those varied work experiences come to bear on your work as a fiction writer?

My favorite part about writing is getting to know the characters, and I tend to be a magnet for freaky people and weird situations. I think all of these jobs call for a desire to be out in the world and a sense of curiosity about the lives of others. They also often present challenging situations, requiring persistence to see them through. As a bartender, I dealt with people whose personalities would flip from introverted to outrageous without warning; as a snowboard instructor, I sometimes had these super-skinny kids or really big kids who thought it would be easy to learn to snowboard, like in a video game, who got frustrated and would not listen to directions and instead just tore down the hill, careening into everyone. It would start out kind of funny, then get not so funny, and I’d have to figure out that particular person in order to deal with the situation, because you can’t just walk away from them. As a journalist I have to really think about what people have interesting stories – teaching stories – and be willing to ask them questions, which can be intimidating. All of these traits – the curiosity, the willingness to ask questions, the empathy, and the persistence – have helped me out as a fiction writer. Plus, these jobs gave me all kinds of characters and situations to write about. Have I written about the actual jobs? Not quite yet. The people? Yes. Some are in Hustle.

You teach creative writing and literature at Pacific Lutheran University. How does teaching enhance your approach to your own writing?

I think that breaking apart a story or a poem to consider how it functions is the best way to learn to write. To teach the material, I have to know it inside and out, and I learn a good deal about craft when I prep. Then students – at least those who have read closely and with intent – come to workshop and they lay out their take, which is hopefully quite different from mine. Together we compare notes and figure out the ways that these writers have manipulated the fundamentals of craft in order to break our hearts or make us laugh or make us hungry, in every sense of the word. From teaching, I have learned that most stories have a similar blueprint made up of similar fundamentals, which is what makes them recognizable as a story; our goal then is to figure out the ways certain writers have manipulated those fundamentals toward a desired effect, then practice these approaches until we have them at our fingertips, or at least can say we’ve tried them. That’s just one way, but this is how teaching in general enhances my writing.

There’s a whole lot of your home terrain of Texas in Hustle. What was it like to tap your memories of that place now that you’ve escaped to the Pacific Northwest?

Texas was never so alive to me as after I moved away and while I was writing Hustle. You are correct to say I escaped; I left because of the heat and because I wanted to know more of the world. I got away as quickly as possible. I didn’t actually want to write a Texas book; in fact, I wanted to avoid writing a Texas book. But eventually I got steamrolled by the characters. In my day-to-day writing process, I draw heavily from setting, both to anchor myself in the narrative and to give the story tone. Writing Hustle, I found myself thinking a good deal about the weather in Texas, like those ground-shaking thunderstorms and their greenish-pink afterglow. That was essential in the chapter titled “Tangled in the Ropes,” where Buddy teaches Chris how to hustle people. There’s the summer heat and the rattle of the window a/c unit when the babysitter, Theresa, teaches Chris about sex. The cold weather and the snow toward the end of the novel, when Chris starts to harden. Writing the book, I also came to better understand the people of Texas. Something I noticed was a systemic underlying tension in the dual nature of many people I’ve known, both men and women – that strong sense of loyalty combined with wildness, and how this manifests as people grow older and get responsibilities. What happens when that wildness prevails and cannot be overcome? That was a question that kept coming up with the characters as I wrote.

You’ve done a lot of traveling in support of Hustle. What’s been your worst road experience? Your best?

This year I was away from home almost constantly between September 2nd and December 1st, visiting bookstores and universities, and doing house readings. Self-funded and self-organized, with advice I got from friends and my publicists. Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history (one room was so bad I slept fully clothed, wearing a hoodie); putting another $35.00 in the gas tank each morning (then getting lost several times while en route); passing all the dead raccoons on the roadside (gross but completely true!); eating salt-soaked fast food and growing rounder while learning the temperament of drivers in each new state (if you don’t go ninety in parts of Michigan, you get run over); the severity of introspection that comes with being alone in a car for hours (salvation comes from singing loudly to anthemic punk rock); that mild relief/panic before opening the door on another motel room (you know if the a/c is on full blast, it’s thinning out some smell); and hoping the reading would go smoothly (which it almost always does). At the same time all of this is quite beautiful, and it was great to stay with friends and family when I could. I knew it would be challenging, but, like most things I end up doing, I wanted the experience.

The events themselves are the best part. So no two readings are ever the same, I do something different each time: I’ve sung Dwight Yoakam as I read, and I’ve sung Wilco songs during Q&A’s as part of an answer. I’ve had audience members read with me. I’ve truly – above all else – enjoyed meeting the many people that I have met along the way. Bookstores owners and booksellers who are excited about Hustle. Other writers and teachers. Book clubs are great. People who have read the book and are nervous to talk about it. People who say they finished the book in a single plane ride or they couldn’t go to sleep because they couldn’t put it down, which really surprised me. People who want to tell me which actors should play which parts in the movie version, if there is a movie version. Someone said Gary Busey for the grandfather, and I thought that was a riot. Also I’ve been able to hand off books to Rhett Miller, the singer for the Old 97’s who appears in the novel at a crucial time in Chris’s life, and to Dorothy Allison, who is a hero of mine. Many times, over the nine years it took to write and publish the book, I thought it would never come out, and I still freak out when I see it on a shelf at a store. Now people are reading it, and I’m reading it to people, and to me that is amazing.

What’s your preferred way to work? A certain time of day or place?

I tend to write best in my office at night, usually starting around 11, especially when I’m writing initial drafts. I talk to my characters, and this seems to be the time when they’re most vocal. When I’m revising, I can work all day, every day. I am learning more to write away from my desk, to go for walks and drives and think through the scenes before trying to write them down.

What’s next from you?

As I’ve been traveling to support Hustle, I’ve also been doing research for my new book. I’m working on a nonfiction project about my father and stories he told me while I was growing up – his involvement with the suicide of his first wife at sixteen, his twin brother who was crushed beneath a car while they were working on it – and other tragic events wherein he situated himself as a sympathetic protagonist. Stories that I have since learned he reconstructed almost entirely. The events occurred, but his involvement was not as a he claimed; in fact, often he was in some ways to blame. The book is going to focus on the whole of his life and our relationship. I’ve been traveling to different places where he lived – the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts – to interview people and see where all he lived. The experience of coming to know him as a ten year old and as a twenty year old has been startling and amazing. It’s been a lot to take on, but I’m excited to see how all of these stories are starting to come together.

Fort Benton travelogue

Last week, I traveled to Fort Benton to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. I love every chance I get to explore Montana, but Fort Benton holds a special place in my heart — for its history, for the folks I’ve met there, for its beauty. It’s the kind of place — nay, it is THE place — where I’d love to live.

And you know what? Getting there is pretty damned dazzling, too.

Won’t you join me?

I left Billings just before noon Tuesday, climbing 27th Street to the top of the Rims and heading out into the rolling plains and buttes of central Montana.

Wide open spaces ...

At the little town of Lavina, about 45 miles from Billings, I encounter my first junction. Turn right, and I’m headed to Roundup. I’ll turn left.

Lovely little Lavina.

For the next 65-70 miles, there are just a few towns — Ryegate and Harlowton are the largest of these — and lots of buttes and grazing land. It’s a pleasant stretch of highway. At Harlowton, I head dead north and run into the Judith Gap wind farm and its impressive sea of triple-bladed turbines.

Windmills in the distance.

A closer view of the windmills.

Next comes another junction, where Highway 191 terminates perpendicular to Highway 12. Here lies Eddie’s Corner, the crossroads of central Montana. To my right is Lewistown. Also to my right is Eddie’s Corner. To my left is Great Falls. I’ll be going left, but after I slip into the store at Eddie’s Corner.

Everybody stops at Eddie's Corner. Everybody.

At Eddie’s Corner, it’s expected that you’ll take a picture of yourself in the restroom. Actually, I just made that up. Probably, I’m now the focus of a sting operation. Forget you ever saw this.

My traveling uniform. Go team!

A driving man works up a powerful thirst.

Look, Ma! Sugar-free!

OK, back on the road. Thirty miles beyond Eddie’s Corner brings Stanford, where I make a couple of turns and see a welcome sign.

Sixty-five miles to go ...

I love the last stretch of this trip. It’s equal parts grandeur and stark beauty, with rolling plains, buttes, badlands and, on a clear day, mountains in the distance.

Square Butte in the distance.

A closer view of Square Butte.

Into some badlands.

Finally, I descended into Missouri River Breaks, crossed the bridge and turned right into the heart of Fort Benton. One of the first things I see: my hotel, the Grand Union.

The Grand Union Hotel, my host for the evening.

In a town chock full of history, the Grand Union fits perfectly. Opened in 1882. Continued for more than a century. Closed. Was resuscitated and refurbished and is now a showplace in this wonderful town.

My room. My overnight bag made itself right at home.

The Mighty Missouri burbles just outside my window.

But Fort Benton and all its wonderful history could wait. I came a day early for one reason, and one reason only: golf.

The view from the 9th tee at the Signal Point golf course in Fort Benton.

My golf game at Signal Point was unremarkable: lots of bogeys, double bogeys, triple bogeys and — for shame — quadruple bogeys. Two pars. Great scenery, though.

Just off the ninth green, you can see the town below.

The next morning, I woke up early and absorbed the news of the (previous) day. Heartburn set in quickly.

"Oregen"? You did not coat yourself in glory, Great Falls Tribune.

Luckily, breakfast was much more appealing.

Eggs, bread, fresh plum, coffee, orange juice, granola. Yum!

After breakfast, I went for a stroll. Just outside the Grand Union is a sculpture dedicated to one of Fort Benton’s most famous figures, Shep. (Seriously, I love this story so much!)

Commemorative Shep.

Later that day, during my talk to the Chouteau County Friends of the Library, I asked if anyone had known Shep. One gentleman raised his hand and said, “I fed him.” That was a story I had to hear (quick summation: Shep did not like kidneys). I felt like I was in the presence of reflected greatness.

Shep's story.

Just down from Shep is a footbridge across the Mighty Missouri. A must-walk, even on a blustery morning.

The Mighty Missouri from the bridge.

About the bridge.

Now, Fort Benton is a friendly town, one of the friendliest I’ve ever seen. But back in the day, you could find trouble there, if trouble was your cup of tea.

"The Bloodiest Block in the West"

The bloodiest block now sports a supermarket. Not all change is for the worse.

Meet Thomas Meagher (“Marr”). Fortunately for Fort Benton and its historical ways, the good governor was not the sort to fade away quietly. No, he was presumed drowned after tumbling off a steamboat on July 1, 1867, along this stretch of the Missouri. But given Meagher’s colorful life, I don’t think any of us can be certain he’s not in an Irish tavern at this very moment, lifting a pint.

Thomas Meagher plaque.

Thomas Meagher, preserved.

More on Meagher.

After reacquainting myself with the governor’s story, I left the riverside and dived deeper into town.

I love spooky old abandoned churches.

The Chouteau County Library, one of many Carnegie libraries in Montana, all of them showplaces.

The Banque, a terrific steakhouse. This is Front Street in Fort Benton.

Then, it was back to the Grand Union to clean up and prepare for my library gig.

The Grand Union dominates the downtown area.

The lobby of the Grand Union.

After my library gig, I just had to see more Shep stuff. So I drove up to his resting spot.

The marker atop the hill.

I didn't see a headstone, per se, but I'm guessing that cairn marks Shep's resting spot. He was a good boy.

Here's Shep's eternal view of the town that took him in.

Shep's train station. Passenger service to Fort Benton ended long ago.

One last nugget from Fort Benton, a house that pays tribute to its paddleboat past.

Giving houseboat a whole new meaning.

So began the long drive back home, 200-plus-miles of stunning views.

Still wondering why it's called The Big Sky State?

At Eddie’s Corner, I stopped again. This time for some dinner.

Liver and onions. So good.

Sometime later, the traveler returned home.

Billings, as seen from atop the Rimrocks.

Let’s do it again sometime.

To Dillon and back: an incomplete travelogue

If you followed the old blog, you might remember my Missoula travelogue from a week ago, when I proved that I’m a rather lacking photojournalist. Not content to prove it once, I’ve reiterated it with a trip to Dillon this week for a reading at the University of Montana Western.

Take my hand and away we go …

When I left Billings at about 9 a.m. Monday, this was the view of the sky through the moon roof of my car. Nice, eh?

In a post preceding the trip, one of the things I asked for was a clear view of the mountains. Wish granted.

I love Bozeman so much, I can’t even tell you. I get a little shot of energy every time I drive into downtown.

Maybe it’s the awesome sugar-free latte that awaits me at Leaf and Bean

… or perhaps it’s that I’ll be visiting the Country Bookshelf, one of my favorite bookstores. This time, I had to pick up the current issue of Montana Quarterly. I made a snap decision on the way out to read my short story “Cruelty to Animals,” which appears in this issue.

About 35 miles outside Bozeman, I stopped at the Town Pump to load up on snacks. My haul: a frozen huckleberry drink (44 ounces), a loaded hot dog (tucked away in a pizza sleeve), and Tic-Tacs to blunt the effects of the hot dog.

Downtown Dillon, August 1942, from the "Captured: America in Color" collection. Check out this picture and others at


OK, do you remember this photo from downtown Dillon? Well, the building is still there …

I think I speak for everyone when I say “Bring back the turret!”

This is what was directly behind me when I took the picture of the now turret-less building. After reading this, I’m now sorry I didn’t go in. Next time!

I made it to Dillon just after 2 p.m. and my host for the evening, Alan Weltzien, was not going to be ready for me for a few hours. So I did the only sensible thing: I headed for the Beaverhead Golf Course.


And like the hack I am, I put up a craptastic score. Here’s the thing, though: My form is picture-perfect. Clearly, my tools are inferior.

Now then …

At this juncture, the picture-taking ends for a while. Among the things that happened as I kept my cell phone in my pocket: dinner with Alan and his lovely wife, Lynn; a stroll on campus; a reading to a very nice crowd at The Cup, the UM Western campus coffee shop; a few rounds of drinks with Alan and some of his friends. Because, hey, who wants to see that when you can look at a golf cart, right?

Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., I headed home:

The day before, on the way to Dillon, I’d noticed a closed-down campus of some sort in Twin Bridges. It’s the old Montana State Orphanage, which has been closed since 1985. I vowed to take a closer look on the way back. Here’s the sign out front, festooned with for-sale messages.

You can’t see it very well in this picture, but there’s a Victorian house on the grounds that is just haunting — and badly in need of repair.

Over the fence, here’s a view of some of the buildings on the campus. This Seattle Times story from 1995 tells what life was like at the orphanage for a couple of its former residents.

More orphanage buildings. A Bozeman Daily Chronicle story of more recent vintage tells what the owner of the property hopes to do with it.

Back on the road. The route between Dillon and Interstate 90, where I’d turn east toward home, basically runs in a long river valley between mountain ranges. Here was the view outside my passenger window.

Still more scenery. One of the things I love about driving in the mountains is that there’s such a difference between what you see on the way in and what you see as you retrace your path.

Trenchant political commentary in a restroom at the Whitehall Town Pump.

As I made my way home after lunch in Bozeman, I watched the coming weather with trepidation.

As it turned out, I just had to withstand a little rain. No problem.

Everyone should get to come home to a dachshund.