Originally published March 25, 2021
The most attention-getting thing I’ve read in the past week is this piece by Anne Helen Petersen, titled “What Demoralization Does to Teachers.”
It took hold of me not just because I’m friends with a lot of teachers (I am) or because I see the factors outlined in the article playing out among those friends (I do). What stopped me cold was the distinction between burnout and what’s really happening to teachers:
From the piece:
What educators are feeling right now — what they’ve felt over the last year — is not just frustration and fear inspired by the pandemic. It’s not just burnout. It’s way beyond that. It’s chronic burnout and deep demoralization as their labor is increasingly under-funded, under-valued, and under-resourced.
Wait, there’s more. In an article cited by Petersen, which you can read here, Doris A. Santoro writes:
One reason people are not attracted to teaching, and why some are leaving teaching, is that they do not see it as a place where they can enact their values.
I daresay demoralization is a destructive force whatever your line of work. What makes it so alarming in the teaching realm, of course, is that education is the bedrock for everything that follows. If we’re torching teachers—not just working them hard but also causing that work to have no meaning to them—who pays on the back end? The answer is obvious. If you think we have a problem with chronic ignorance now (and, yeah, I think we do), what happens when we’re chasing teachers out of the profession and, consequently, are unable to attract the sort of folks who have historically flocked to it?
I don’t have to look far to see the worrying signs.
I have a dear friend who is leaving teaching at the end of this school year. She’s not ready for retirement; indeed, she’ll have to continue working to pay the bills, retain health insurance, put gas in the car, etc. But she’s done teaching, after a long, distinguished career of doing it, after a long time of feeling called to it. But she can no longer take the misplaced priorities, the undercutting, the under-funding, the many obstacles that are lined up to stand between her and what she knows will get results in the classroom.
She’s done, and it’s her community’s loss. Our community’s loss. And I suppose that would mean so much more if our community even understood what’s happening to her and, by extension, to all of us.
Several years ago, I taught a semester-long honors fiction-writing course at Montana State University Billings. It was harder than I ever imagined it would be, and I have a pretty vivid imagination for such things. But I threw myself into it, and indemnified as I was against the more tedious aspects of being an instructor there—I was a visiting writer, so I didn’t have committee assignments or faculty meetings or anything else of that nature—I tried my best to make connections with the self-starting students who’d chosen the course, to impart what I’ve learned but mostly to help them find ways into expressing their art.
At the end of the semester, I gave a public lecture, and I chose public education as my topic, focused through the lens of my uneven relationship with it. As part of that, I asked my teacher friends to tell me what they wished their communities knew about their jobs.
Some of those responses:
How deeply I loved each and every student that came into my classroom. Even the ostensibly unlovable ones, I worked until I could love them, until I could see their unique and spectacular gifts. I want people to know the system is designed to use that love against you, pencil after pencil, lost planning period after lost planning period. I burned out so fast, and I wish there had been a system interested in retaining me.
I think people need to know how functionally illiterate most college students are … and how unsurprising it is, given how teachers at lower levels lack any sort of empowerment or incentive or respect.
All I want to do is teach in the way that I know is developmentally appropriate for kids. That is all my colleagues want, too.
This was pre-pandemic, far enough back to be a memory and close enough to touch us. We’re in trouble, folks. We have been for a long time. The pandemic accelerated matters, but the trajectory has been disastrous for a while.
Empathy for the demoralized is not hard to come by. I spent twenty-five years as a newspaper journalist, the very definition of “been there, done that.” At the end, amid quarterly staff purges, scaled-back coverage, “doing more with less” and other assorted bullshit, I walked away and into an uncertain future working life. I left not because my pay was low (it was, relative to other jobs I had the skill to do) or because it was hard work (it was ever thus). I left because the work that had been so important to me for so long didn’t seem to matter anymore, because I’d been implicitly told by the powers that be that I didn’t matter. I was a cost center, one that was aggressively being pared back. (And now, the vultures that have control of much of that line of work argue that people who do what I did for all those years aren’t journalists at all. It’s as if the business model is degradation.)
And you know what? Maybe I didn’t matter at the end. If that’s so, I cut them before they could cut me. That’s a decidedly different outlook than the one I had when I entered the profession. Twenty-five years of steady erosion and declining standards beat me up pretty good. I have great affection and nothing but good wishes for those who keep answering the call at local newspapers. They are doing what I could not.
Setting my own experience aside, I think it’s fair to say that when the folks develop a feeling Santoro widely ascribes to teachers—“Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work”—it’s not something that can be soothed with a little time away, some breathing exercises, and some cinched-up self-care. At some point, the demoralized give up and leave, and nobody who cares the way they once did can be compelled to step in, and then what?
I’ll say it again: We’re in trouble.
Originally published March 11, 2021
My father and I were on our way to a vaccination clinic several weeks ago (1), which should have been a happy occasion, and yet tension and sharp words edged into matters, as they so often do. The clinic was close to both my house and the vet from which I’d ordered Dad’s allergy-ridden dog some food, so I laid out the plan: get our shots, drop my wife off at the house, go get his dog’s food, take him home.
It should have been an unassailable itinerary but wasn’t. “Just take me home,” Dad said. “That way, you don’t have to run back and forth.”
“No,” I said. “It’s a loop. And if I take you home, I’ve still gotta come back home, and you don’t get your dog food.”
“I don’t need it today.”
“But we’re almost there.”
“OK, OK, Jesus.”
And this, of course, is when my anger burned and, because I am not smart enough to hold my tongue, I let him have it: “You know, I actually have a brain, and I can actually use that brain to figure shit out.” Boom. Silence, the rest of the time we were together (2).
I don’t want to hang too much on this one flare-up, except that it’s representative of almost every flare-up that ever preceded it and predictive of every conflagration yet to come. We’re two stubborn men who share a last name—but no blood (3)—and almost nothing else, except some deep-seated compulsion to love each other despite it all and to keep trying to hold together a relationship. I suppose, by that metric, we’ve done reasonably well. We’re fifty-one years in, and neither of us has cut the other loose. We’ve flirted with short-circuiting the thing a time or two, but we’ve never had a rupture we couldn’t eventually pick our way across.
I’ve had the better part of my lifetime and his (4) to consider what the fundamental difference between us is, and while the flippant answer--everything—remains ever at the ready, I think the heart of it comes down to one basic thing.
Reflection. That is, the essential quality of looking within to discover why you are the way you are, what experiences shaped you, how those experiences were viewed at the time and are viewed in hindsight, how they might inform the choices at the junctures yet unseen.
Reflection is the currency by which I get through the world. A lot of what comes up into my face doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in the moment, particularly if I’m trying to suss out someone else’s angles or motivations. I’ve learned to trust hindsight and time to bring clarity to at least some of what initially seems inscrutable. Where I’m able, and when I sense that I won’t do more damage, I’m a big believer in closure, even if the loop that gets tied off rests solely within my own head. My momma taught me two things that have been invaluable to the flawed man I’ve grown into: I can say I’m wrong when it’s so, and I can say I’m sorry and mean it.
My father has never shown me either of those two capabilities, and if he’s inclined toward reflection, he keeps those thoughts awfully close. They never travel from his head to his mouth, and thus they are at least twice removed from the ears of someone who could stand to hear them, someone who might reconsider much if he could get some help in understanding just a little.
Here’s where our key difference, the factor at the root of every occasion when we get at loggerheads, tangles me up:
Am I exercising a form of privilege when I put such value on reflection? My life is not like his. Nobody hassles me if I take the time to linger in my interior life (in fact, I could well argue that it’s a professional imperative). Dad’s growing up was fraught and dangerous, and it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t look behind him because so there’s so little back there he would want to see again. When I’m at my most frustrated with him, when he’s been withering in his criticism or his disdain, my wife often steps in to remind me: His whole life has been about survival. He doesn’t think about how the moments connect. He thinks about living to the next one, then the next one, then the next one. You can see it in his pantry, stocked to survive a nuclear winter, even though he eats like a bird these days. He keeps the wanting at bay.
Do I have an obligation, then, to take him as I find him, to give him a pass for all that he is and all that he might well be incapable of being, and to do the heavy lifting required to meet him where he stands?
Then again, I could make a good case that I already do, and that whatever distances remain will be closed only by an equal effort from him. I’m his ride to where he needs to go. I’m his paperwork processor, the one who makes phone calls on his behalf, the reader of fine print, the sentry against scammers, the negotiator of byzantine governments and health care providers. I’m not a martyr to these things; they’re just duties I’ve picked up along the way, as first he aged and then he became elderly, as eyesight and health slowly fail him without robbing him, yet, of time altogether. I have one goal for him—a singular hope—and that’s to see him into the cosmos without pain or terror. And the scariest part of that duty is the possibility that my own health might falter before I can get him there.
So we go on, he and I, to the next obligation, the next game of backgammon, the next time I’m utterly unable to explain to him who I am, what I value, where my aspirations lie, what I’ve learned along the way, and where I keep failing. Until the next time we bark at each other, then sift out the silence, then pick it up and try again.
By the time you read this, our second shots will have been administered. He’s no doubt forgotten the last time we butted heads. Me? I’ve turned the memory into the hope that there won’t be a next time, or that I’ll find it within me to be a better man should it come.
I wouldn’t lay favorable odds on either one.
(1) And so it was that I became aware of the phenomenon known as “vaccination envy.” Three things, OK? First, I’m 1B. Second, it was my time to be in line. Third, I would trade my chronic illness—never you mind what it is, unless you’re my doctor—for a spot deeper in line. In a friggin’ heartbeat I’d make that trade. Short version: Get off my ass. Longer version: Let’s celebrate every dose. I hope yours comes soon, if it hasn’t already.
(2) I’m not saying there wasn’t a benefit.
(3) I was adopted at birth.
(4) He’ll be 82 this summer. He had a series of heart attacks at 53 that damn near killed him. Don’t think I’m not well aware of how close I am to how young he once was.
Originally published January 12, 2021
In September 2019, my wife and I came to a decision we had been nearing at different speeds and while balancing factors that both aligned and diverged: We would put our house in Boothbay, Maine, up for sale and return to Billings, Montana, the city we had left in late May 2018. We’d had a short, but sufficient, tenure in Maine and found it wanting in terms of our day-to-day life. Or, perhaps, we were the lacking ones and simply didn’t have what it takes to live there contentedly.
Whatever the case, after several months of disharmony prompted by a move that just hadn’t worked out, we stood on common ground: We would end the Maine portion of our life together and haul ourselves and our pets and our stuff (and my father and his dog) back to Montana.
Let me cut to the chase here: It has been a good decision, the proper one. We are relieved to be back in the house in Montana that we couldn’t sell in the first half of 2018 (a house that now would be plucked up almost instantaneously for a price that would subsequently lock us out of the market; time is weird, and so are the unforeseen consequences of a pandemic). With so much in flux and uncertain—the arc of the coronavirus, when we might see loved ones again, the republic itself—we check in with each other from time to time: Is everything still good? Are we still OK with this decision we’ve made? The answers are yes, right down the line.
Nonetheless, my thoughts often do wind back fifteen months to that decision, and to the subsequent six-month interregnum between the listing and what eventually followed: the purchase contract and the closing and the loadout. I ponder how freeing it was to simply commit to a course of action, how calm we were after the decision was made, how we never got over-eager or frustrated as we waited for a buyer to fall in love with our little Cape house. And how, in a quite unlikely and unexpected way, I made my peace with Maine on the long fadeout.
This is about that last part, in particular.
I wrote about this for the Boothbay Register while we were still in Maine, so here’s the TL;DR version: The adoption of our miniature dachshund, Fretless, was followed shortly by my doctor’s admonition that I was approaching fifty and needed to exercise a good bit more than I had been. His final words on the subject: “Make Maine your playground. Take that dog with you.”
Never let it be said that I can’t obey orders. The Boothbay Region Land Trust is the steward for twenty-six preserves on the peninsula, and while Fretless and I didn’t get to all of them, we made frequent use of the ones nearest us. I fell deeply in love with this particular aspect of Maine, and while it alone was not enough to offset all of the factors compelling me (and us) back to Montana, the love was and is real and deep and true. Those coastal rivers are breathtaking. I was enchanted by how easily I could walk away from my car at a trailhead and disappear into a stillness and a silence that were not at all intimidating. I could hear my breath and my heartbeat and Fretless’ little steps in the woods. It hard-bonded us, making him my faithful companion and me his trusted doggie dad. At the outset of our relationship, we needed what those walks together gave us.
It’s different now, here in our part of Montana. The most easily accessible trail in our neighborhood is a concrete suburban path we can walk out our door and join. Or I can pitch Fretless into the car and take a short drive to Lake Elmo State Park, where there’s a manmade reservoir featuring a perfectly adequate, perfectly flat trail looping around the water. The prescribed exercise is good, and Fretless has no complaints, but that slip into the silence of my own head doesn’t really happen here. There’s more sky than scenery, an inversion of the Maine experience, and we’re never far away from the sight of houses and the sound of cars and the scents of an encroaching small city. It’s not lesser, necessarily. Just … different.
And when our walk is through, we return to the car and to our house and to the contentedness we’ve found here after nearly two years away. That part, certainly, is a considerable improvement.
So what’s the difference here? Why was one place home and the other wasn’t, and why did we have to leave to find this out?
As much as I wish I could, I don’t think I could tabulate it on a worksheet.
So much of what works or doesn’t work in our lives—I’m talking jobs, relationships, what we do, where we go, where we live—comes down to timing and current circumstance. Once we learn to account for the variable of timing, it’s easier to let go of the things that don’t happen the way they might if we had full control—or any control—over the essential details. It also neutralizes the hard sells of commerce and the trafficking of romantic tropes. You learn to appreciate circumstantial convergences. You also learn to discount the notion of magic when timing can adequately carry the explanation.
We moved to Maine and wanted to make it home. We had loved it from afar, and we had spent time there before the move, and we thought we and it would be a match. We were not. There were outside factors that augured against our really settling in. We’d had some income loss that was harder to replace there. My father, with whom I have a loving but often fraught relationship, came with us and moved into a basement apartment in the house we bought, and his presence in such proximity to us had a negative effect on the life we tried to live independent of him. We moved to a county that trended quite a bit older than we are, full of nice people who were insular and embedded into their own patterns. Maine was easy to move to and hard to become a part of, in our experience, but that, too, is a matter of timing. Does the picture come out differently if it had been just the two of us and we’d picked a house in Portland, where there are more people and more outlets for our interests? Perhaps. I don’t know. That time has passed.
Or maybe it’s coming around and we just can’t see it yet.
Or perhaps we’ll someday find a place we call home somewhere else. Long Island, where Elisa grew up. Texas, where I grew up. Virginia. North Carolina. North Dakota (that would be a surprise, but hey, whatever). Or perhaps, having taken our opportunity to return to Montana, we’re in the place where we’ll stay until we return to stardust. I would be more than OK with that.
Time will tell. One way or another.
A few weeks ago, as Fretless and I completed our lap around Lake Elmo, we approached a massive flock of Canada geese lazing on the shore. Fretless, the world’s most ironically named dog, one frightened of a melting pile of snow, strained just a little at the end of the leash, curious about these creatures he was encountering for the first time. He wasn’t threatening, yet the geese seemed to have a line, and we crossed it. They took briefly to the air in a mighty thumping of wings. They settled a few yards out in the water and scolded us for the intrusion.
It wasn’t quite the majesty Fretless and I often enjoyed in the last place we lived. But it would be unseemly to be anything less than grateful for our chance to go there and take in a sliver of a much more complete picture. I made our apologies to the ruffled geese, and we walked the short distance to the car, and we loaded up.
Five minutes later, we were home.
Originally published January 7, 2021
There’s no clever way to start this, and from the vantage point of these scant words, I feel as though there’s only one place to end it: with anger.
Darrin Marie Murdoch is dead. As I sit writing this—on Christmas Eve, for publication in a couple of weeks—she’s been dead for four months and ten days.
I’ve known for the ten days. That’s it. And I’m pissed, mostly that Darrin was plucked from this life when she was so young and so loved and so needed (which I’ll get to soon), but partly because I didn’t know she was gone until a succession of thoughts came to me:
1. I haven’t seen updates from Darrin in a while. Facebook and its confounded algorithms are hiding her from me.
2. I’ll visit her page.
3. Oh, god, no.
I could castigate myself for not seeing her obituary in the newspaper or online. I could lash out at our common friends who did know she was gone and didn’t tell me. (I could do it, but I would be wrong and I would be unkind.)
I blame the pandemic. Not for taking her, because that doesn’t appear to be the case. She’d had a host of health difficulties and a recent surgery, and she went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up on the other side of it. This is life and the bargain that comes with it. You gulp in that first big breath, then you start playing your time against a clock that stops at some indeterminate hour. I get all that.
What I don’t get, and what I’m continually angry about in a universal sense, is why it had to be this way. Those of us who have acted responsibly (and aren’t frontline health care professionals or essential workers) have gone into our silos for nine months and counting while the government fails all of us and while we fail each other with selfishness and a miscast notion that freedom can stand independent of responsibility. Our lives have gotten smaller, if indeed we’re fortunate enough to have hung on to them at all. In the house my wife and I share, we wake up, we have breakfast, we split up for work, we reconvene periodically throughout the day, we climb into bed, and we do it all again. We have each other and our pets, and that’s a lot, but it’s also not nearly enough.
Meanwhile, in the larger sense of this country’s collective COVID-19 failure, we’re all losing what binds us even as we’re inured to the loss. It feels as though, on the other side of this, we owe each other forgiveness for the things we have and haven’t said and the things both done and undone. I feel the weight of the penance I need to do, the amends I must make, and the grace I need to offer. I also feel the burden of anger that lights up and burns like flash paper. How does anyone balance all of that?
In April, just a couple of weeks after we arrived back in Montana after a nearly two-year sojourn in Maine, I wrote these words for an anthology called Stop the World: Snapshots from a Pandemic. They felt visceral then. They feel something else now, in retrospect—hopeless even as the vaccines roll out (amid one final failure from the outgoing administration), sadly outdated in the death toll, and prescient in a way I never wanted to be:
We’re alive, if not entirely living as we once thought of it, while we wait for something resembling normalcy to return. As I put down these words, the U.S. death toll has crossed 50,000, a number surely to rise. Only in the awful solitude of my imagination do I dare consider what it might be before these words find your eyes. I don’t want to know. But I’m going to. If I live to see the final toll. If I’m lucky. The word lucky has never been so perverse.
If you’ll forgive the coldly corporate nomenclature, COVID-19 has a cost structure, and the tolls seem random: Some pay with isolation. Some pay with inconvenience. Some pay with sickness followed by recovery. Many millions have paid with their jobs. Tens of thousands, so far, have paid with their lives in the U.S. Worldwide, it’s hundreds of thousands more.
The only bitterly sure thing is that we’re all paying with something.
I was supposed to see Darrin again. Surely, in a normal set of circumstances, I’d have seen her between April and August. Failing that, surely, in a time unencumbered by social distancing and voluntary withdrawal, I’d have been engaged with our shared social structure enough to know she had gone. I would have been at her funeral. I would have hugged her mother, who has lost all of her children these past few years.
I would have said goodbye instead of oh, god, I didn’t even know you were gone.
This is part of the toll.
Darrin was a teacher*. She loved those children with her whole heart. She especially loved the poorest of them, the most neglected, the ones with the biggest hurdles to overcome at the youngest ages. She believed in them, and for that reason more than any other, she should have lived forever.
She was also fun, and smart, and bawdy, and loud, and loved. Every time she saw me--every time—I got a chaste kiss on the cheek. For several years, I had a standing invitation to her book club’s Christmas party, an annual date I hope will be renewed when we can gather again, although in the next beat I wonder how it can go on without her. Nobody loved the food or the drink more than she did. Nobody was more willing to say what she really thought of that month’s book than she was. (I know this firsthand, having a memory of this exchange: “Listen, your last book didn’t have an ending.” “Yeah, it did.” “Craig, no, it didn’t.”)
Goddammit. I should have had time to tell her she was right about that.
*If, like me, you believe that public schools and public education are worth fighting for, and that teachers like Darrin Murdoch stand between the rest of us and the wolves at the door, I implore you to offer a gift to the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools in the name of Darrin Marie Murdoch. Thank you for considering it.
Originally published December 10, 2020
In the first piece I wrote for whatever this series of essays is becoming, I blithely noted a lifelong tendency toward restlessness. It’s a force that has driven research papers, inspired literature, informed film, and, in real-life situations, has ripped apart families, ended jobs, and launched fanciful and ill-fated dreams by the millions.
A worthy topic, no?
Here’s one small slice:
In my primary career, that of a print journalist, I worked for ten newspapers (1) in seven states (2) over the course of twenty-five years (1988 to 2013). The shortest stint in a job was three months (hello, The Olympian, and the tumultuous year 2000 (3)). The longest stint was the final one, seven-plus years at The Billings Gazette, from summer 2006 to late fall 2013.
In all of those years and all of those moves, I would pull up the stakes and fill the UHaul trailer for many reasons—money (4), status, opportunity, a sense of running to or running away—but the only factor that cut across every decision was this one: There looked better to me than here.
If you read a lot of pop psychology (5), you come across the phrase “Wherever you go, there you are.” It has a subtle efficacy, straddling the line between inane (it is what it is) and something much more profound. In my case—and, I suspect, in many cases—it manifested like this: I could spot another job (believe it or not, newspaper gigs flourished in the early years of my career), I could apply for it and get it (because I was good at what I did), and I could pack up all my crap and haul it somewhere new, put down first and last on an apartment, find a new grocery store and some restaurants that suited me, meet new co-workers and bosses, and make a startling, yet thoroughly unsurprising realization days or weeks later:
I’m the same broken jackass I was at the last place!
It took me a long time to learn that I wasn’t feeding the part of me that required some care, the part that had yet to suss out the important differences between fulfillment and happiness amid the considerable overlaps. Not long after my initial career ended, I was picking through the debris field of a marriage with a counselor’s help, and with a lot of reflection and reading, some of these concepts started to click for me. I said to her: “Jesus. I must be the dumbest man alive not to have figured it out before now. (6)” And she smiled at me the way my mother sometimes does when I am in the vicinity of a realization without actually arriving there. “You’re in your mid-forties,” she said. “That’s when most men get it, if they get it at all.” (7)
I don’t think I’ve gotten it. Sometimes, I think I’m asking the right questions, though. That’s progress.
I followed my stepfather into journalism. The difference between us—and it’s vast—is that the job was something he did, not something he was. I used to think I’d figured out something vital that had eluded him, that by pouring myself into the job and remaining mobile (no kids, no attachments), I was making my career work for me. That was an illusion. Truth was, the job was working me, and I was willingly giving it some of my best years without insisting on my share of that time.
My stepfather, meanwhile, rode out the vicissitudes of employment in a single place. Whether the job was good or bad or something in between, whether the bosses were genuinely caring or ogres, he did his work and came home to his family and his home and his life. He knew the difference between durable fulfillment and transient happiness.
Like many dumbasses, I thought I was so smart.
Let’s get back to restlessness. Certainly, that’s a condition that can lead a guy to choose the fleeting over the sustainable (8), to think he’s improving his lot when he’s really just going deeper into the hole. Restlessness, in itself, is not the problem. But restlessness is a gateway to transformative decisions, and those can be problems.
Restlessness, applied well, can be a good and useful thing. And if restlessness is in you, I believe it’s there to stay, so better to manage it than to be managed by it.
My newspaper career ended in 2013, and in the denouement, I was luckier than most: I granted myself release on my own recognizance. My first few novels had started to sell (9), I saw an opportunity to go, and I went.
That first year of not having any obligation that I didn’t willingly take on, I slowly unwound the spring in my chest. I wrote when I wanted to write, I played golf when I wanted to do that, I traveled, I made merry, I finished crashing my first marriage on the rocky outcroppings of incompatibility and disregard.
And somewhere in there, I felt the old stirring again. I wanted something to do, something to learn, somewhere to be. I was bored, a condition that’s the precursor to restlessness, which in turn is the spark that leads to decisions, good or bad.
This is how I became a pig tracker. (10)
In mid-October 2015, after a few weeks of dropping inscrutable hints about what I was up to, I wrote this on Facebook:
I'm working on a pipeline crew, if I haven't been perfectly clear in my pig ramblings this week. Specifically, I'm a pig tracker. A pig is a tool placed in the pipeline that runs from point to point. Different pigs have different uses. Some clean. Some scan the interior of the pipeline. Some purge. And so on.
A tracker stays in front of the pig—the tracker hopes—and records its passage at various crossings, gathering information on time, speed, etc. On a long, gentle run like this one, where the pig is moving about 3 mph and has to cover about 330 miles, that means the trackers work in shifts, day and night, 24 hours daily, all the time. We've been at it since Wednesday morning. We have a ways to go yet.
I'm on the night shift. Midnight to noon. Then I find a hotel somewhere down the line and I bang out some sleep. I just finished that part.
It's a weird, thrilling, lonely thing to skulk around the pipeline in the dark pitch of night. There's a lot of hurry up and wait on this job. There is, occasionally, a lot of hurry up and hurry up. You have to anticipate. You have to react. You have to figure out time and distance. It's fun. It's tedious, too, on occasion. Three days (nights) in, I'm exploring new frontiers of exhaustion. I'm reinforcing an old lesson, that Super 8's are, in many cases, not so super, and that Comfort Inns are not so comforting. …
What I love is that I'm seeing the America I don't know well. Dirt roads and empty precincts and ghost houses and forgotten cemeteries, and a million other things. …
I'm not doing it for money, although I'll certainly take it. I joke sometimes that I do it to stave off boredom, but that's too glib by half. No, it's something else. A chance to see and do and learn. All my life, I've been touched with wanderlust, that compulsion to see beyond present horizons. But I'm getting older and more rooted … I don't wander the way I used to. I miss it sometimes. Here, I can do it on my particular terms—work when I want it, without a desk on some office island, without some new corporate paradigm being triangulated by tiers of bosses. It's me and my night-shift buddy and our day-shift counterparts and the pig. We all keep rolling on.
Pig tracking falls into the good-decision bucket. It's never been more than an occasional job—too many other things to do: books to write, stories to edit, magazines to design, life with Elisa to savor—but the work speaks to both who I am and what I’m fundamentally interested in. Time and speed and distance, man. Wherever we are, however we live, those are the measurements that build our equations.
Without restlessness tugging at me, pestering me, maybe I never see that in such sharp relief.
(1) Deep breath: Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Peninsula Clarion; Texarkana Gazette; Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer; Dayton Daily News; Anchorage Daily News; San Jose Mercury News (twice); San Antonio Express-News; The Olympian; The Billings Gazette.
(2) Shallower breath: Texas (thrice); Alaska (twice); Kentucky; Ohio; California (twice); Washington; Montana.
(3) In less than a calendar year, I moved from San Jose, Calif., to San Antonio to Olympia and back to San Jose, where I clearly should have just stayed in the first place.
(4) Not too damned much of it, in retrospect.
(6) Hubris dies hard.
(7) Men are in a lot of trouble. More on this later, I’m sure.
(8) Guilty, many times.
(9) Talk about transience. It was glorious while it lasted, though.
(10) The main character in my upcoming novel, And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, is a pig tracker. This is not a coincidence.
Originally published December 3, 2020
Just when you think Facebook has turned you away for good with its money- and data-grubbing perniciousness—and I do think this, on the regular—a friend posts something that commands your attention and sends you down the rabbit holes of memory and easy information, among the few reliable outposts in a pandemic that has separated us from each other.
The compelling headline: “The Rare Humans Who See Time & Have Amazing Memories.” The friend who posted it, Ingrid Ougland, commented: “I see the months of the year as this sphere or oval, with December and January at the top, spring months slide down to the right, the summer months are at the bottom and kind of flat, then we climb back up with the fall months. I can’t visualize it any other way!”
Envy was mine. I don’t see time that way at all. If anything, I see it in the old-timey movie effect of the passage of days, calendar sheets flying off in the wind, and suddenly Joseph Cotten (1) is a grownup standing in a place once occupied by a boy. Seconds tumble into minutes tumble into days tumble into weeks and months and years. Time compresses and stacks up, and I occasionally marvel that a colleague, blessed with what seems to be boundless youth, is, in fact, in his mid-thirties and should probably think now about doubling his 401(k) contribution. I wish I had (2).
I would love to see coming time in colors or shapes, if only to make the inevitable passing of it more interesting.
Upon thinking about it more—and herein lies the gift of Ingrid’s post: subsequent ruminations on time (3)—I realized that rather than seeing the days to come in some sort of order, I account for the days gone by with a storage system that’s varied in its cross-referencing and startling in the level of detail it allows me to access long after the time has slipped my grasp.
It’s difficult to get at proving this thesis with any degree of abstraction, so here is a concrete example pulled from the archives, such as they are.
Summer of 1976
A basic fact before we proceed, as it will clarify this anecdote and, in all likelihood, future writings: My mother and father divorced in 1973, when I was three years old. This is not an event that causes me to look backward in wistfulness, wondering if things might have gone better for me had those crazy kids stayed together. Indeed, things almost certainly would have been worse for at least two of us (my father, alas, never had it so good). So, please, if you feel compelled to pity, exercise it for a freckle-faced kid in some alternative universe who had to grow up in that household under the umbrella of that marriage. I’m fine. Really.
What their breach did saddle me with was a sort of bifurcated childhood—two wildly different existences that I had to stitch together as a whole. During school months, I lived in a suburban house out of central casting, with two and sometimes three siblings (my stepbrother Keith being the wild card there), a mother who ran the homefront operation and a stepfather who worked hard and was present to his family life. Call it Cleaver-esque if you wish. That’s not an entirely on-target assessment—there are a few sprinkles of Yours, Mine and Ours, too—but if shorthand is your thing, I’m not going to let us get derailed on the particulars.
Once school was out, my father would send for me, and I would spend summers with him in remote precincts of the West. Dad was an exploratory well digger, a job that scarcely exists anymore. (Slight deviation for self-promotion: My second novel, The Summer Son, will satisfy even the heartiest appetites for tales about well-digging.) He would drive from job to job with his truck-mounted drilling rig and a crew of helpers (sometimes one, usually two, and when I was around, I’d make three—or maybe two and a half) and would dig test holes that were subsequently detonated and picked over by geologists, whose task was to determine whether the findings warranted further extraction.
These jobs lasted for varying lengths—sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of months—and so I have this passel of childhood summers spent in such places as Montpelier, Idaho, and Baggs, Wyoming, and Limon, Colorado, and Sidney, Montana, and Price, Utah. I slept in motel rooms and on fold-out couches in fifth wheels, and, occasionally, in tents. Every morning, I’d ride with my father and his crew out to the fields where they were working, my sleepy head bouncing on Dad’s shoulder as he made the daybreak commute.
We spent the summer of 1976 in Elko, Nevada, and here’s where the cross-tabbing of memory comes in. I remember it was ’76 because Dad’s helpers were my new uncle Barry and my new stepbrother Ronnie (4). I remember because Dad and his new wife and Ronnie and I were jammed up in a Holiday Rambler, often unable to escape each other, and I remember that the fissures in the marriage were almost immediately exposed by such unceasing proximity. I remember because “Play That Funky Music” was ever-present on the radio, and because I told Ronnie that I liked “Silly Love Songs” better and he told me I was just a dumb kid.
I remember because, one day, another family in another trailer pulled in and set up camp, and their kid, a few years older than I was, punched me in the nose, bloodying it (and, perhaps, contributing to my fear of such confrontations). I remember because Dad and Uncle Barry responded to this assault in a way that can be described, only with considerable charity, as disproportionate. They carried baseball bats to the other family’s campsite, waggled the lumber with menace, and suggested those folks move along. Dad still tells this story from time to time, when he gets enough alcohol in him to open the dark rooms of his recall, and he always finishes with a laugh and a “man, you’ve never seen anybody drive away so fast.”
I remember because I have to live with two distinct reactions to that sight, separated by years of reconsideration: In the moment, as a bloodied little boy, being in awe of these men who stepped in on my behalf, as if they were superheroes. And now, much older than either man was that day, wondering what the hell was wrong with them. Forty-four years’ worth of calendar pages have been cast to the wind, and I can sit here today and close my eyes and see the terror on the faces of that man, his wife, and their boy. I am much more in tune with how scared they were than I am with how I felt as a six-year-old who watched the scene unfurl.
Summer of 2006
On Day 1 of my two-day move from California to Montana, I skirted along Elko on Interstate 80, and recall was stoked not just by the name but also by the bends in the highway and by the hills in the distance. I guided my pickup-UHaul combo off the interstate and, with neither GPS nor memory of the name of the campground we had stayed in thirty years earlier, I drove right to where it was. I knew the direction and the topography, I knew the hill it sat upon, and I knew the turns I had to make to get there.
Had it occurred to me that this was unusual, I might have made more of it, but I’d been doing similar things in other places throughout my adult life, and I’ve continued to do it since. Drop me most anywhere I’ve spent an appreciable amount of time, whether as a child or a man, and I can find my way to the places I occupied in some past era of my life. And once I’m there, the time gone by indeed has shape and color. It settles uneasily atop or alongside whatever is happening there now. I can stand in front of my first house, off Poison Spider Road in Mills, Wyoming, as I did this past summer, and I will see the boxy white house with the single-car garage, ever-present in my memories since I last lived there in 1978, and I will also see what it is now: a sort of cinnamon red, the garage long ago converted into more living space, the street out front paved rather than dirt and gravel. I can connect with what was and allow it to coexist with what is. I have to. There is no other choice.
Time is a slow-motion wrecking ball—it wipes out businesses that once existed on corners, housing developments, schools, the names by which we know things. Few human constructions can survive it. But none of that matters if it’s the corners to which you’re beholden and not what sat upon them while you were passing through.
Those corners call to me.
(1) I’m not sure why Joseph Cotten popped out of the ol’ cranium for that example. I’m not terribly familiar with the bulk of his work, although he looms large with me for two reasons: First, Shadow of a Doubt might be the best movie ever, and yes, I’m willing to fight you. Second, I always momentarily confuse him with Josef Sommer, which is thoroughly inexplicable.
(2) Seriously, retirement is a pipe dream. I’m going to have to die with my hands on the keyboard.
(3) I mean, I’m not Proust, but I do spend an inordinate amount of my energy ruminating on the illusions and erosions of time.
(4) While it’s true that I’m an ardent believer in the benefits of a necessary divorce, I really would like to urge those among us who cannot sustain the institution of marriage (in this case, I’m looking at you, Dad) to keep the rest of us out of it. At one point in my young life, I had three brothers and three sisters, thanks to the kudzu-like entanglements of several mergers. And then, with the stroke of a divorce judge’s pen, half of them were gone. I did not get a vote in the decision to add these sort-of siblings in the first place. Nonetheless, I accepted them as my own and loved them. I also didn’t get a vote in their departure. It sucks.
Originally published November 26, 2020
When I was nine years old, my stepfather picked me up from school one day and took me to a junkyard somewhere between downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and the middle-class suburb where we lived. We went into a squat cinderblock building with a couple of slat windows and scant ventilation, a place where men worked and sweated, and even today, forty-one years later, I can remember the air that hung heavy with that aroma of ancient perspiration.
There, we met a man named Gary Barcroft, the head honcho of Little John’s Wrecking Yard Boxing Team. He was a man of hard angles, with a placid face and a harsh voice, and my stepfather handed me over and gave Gary permission to make a fighter of me. Actually, now that I reflect on it, that ambition was probably too lofty for the likes of the kid I was. What my stepfather hoped, I think, is that I might become unafraid of being punched, because that pervasive fear was coloring my interactions with other kids I knew, who could smell the fear on me and wanted to have a go.
I think my stepfather’s aims that day were entirely pragmatic. A kid who can fight = a kid who doesn’t get bullied. I doubt he had his eyes on any notions that were larger than the moment demanded.
And yet …
I mentioned in a previous post that one of my best friends and I have bonded, in part, over the fact that we’re both big guys who look like bruisers but who don’t have any desire to rumble with anybody. This isn’t just a function of our current ages; believe me, we’re both well aware of how pathetic it would for a fifty-something and a sixty-something to go around tossing knuckles. Even as a younger man, with less of a handle on my rage and, perhaps, more of an excuse to give it an outlet, I wasn’t that guy. And yet, on occasion, trouble came sniffing around me. When you’re a big guy, you’re every bit the target that a little guy is—perhaps not to someone who doesn’t want a hassle and can find easier marks, but certainly to the alpha who seeks dominion or to the guy who thinks he can get his by taking yours.
An example: Thirty years ago, I was playing pickup basketball at the Y in downtown Fort Worth, back when I had endless wind and knees that didn’t groan under my weight. The publisher of the newspaper I worked for at the time was on the court, too, and the first time we divvied up teams, he and I ended up on opposite sides, and he slapped my chest and said “I’ve got the big man.” I knew what that was, even at twenty years old. He didn’t know me—I was just a low-level correspondent in one of his far-flung suburban bureaus—but he knew what I was. I was his trophy that day.
Events unfolded predictably. He pestered me. Jabbed me. Stretched the thin line between aggressiveness and assholery till it snapped. Taunted me. Tried to get a reaction from me. I wasn’t giving that up. I’m not claiming here that I was in possession of endless patience. It’s just that I knew where an escalation led. There’s a violent turn that such encounters can take, and once that happens, everybody involved becomes known to each other. No way would the outcome of such an encounter favor me. I wanted to keep writing newspaper stories and cashing checks without this guy being aware of my existence.
At one point, late in a game, I got him on my back, jutted my ass end to keep him there, called for the ball with an upraised right hand. Once I had it on my palm, I dropped my left elbow dead center into his chest, heard the breath go out of him, a most satisfying deflation, and spun to the hoop and scored. When the game ended, I gathered up my stuff and went home, no words spoken, no outward satisfaction at my rejoinder.
Me 1, Provocateurs 0.
Gary Barcroft is the guy third from the right in the old picture above. It was taken in 1963, sixteen years before he met me. In 1979, the man was as good as his word. He put me on a heavy bag. Taught me how to beat out a rhythm on a speed bag. Instructed me in the ways of skipping rope. Sent me out on long runs with other fighters, from pipsqueaks like me on up to some of the up-and-coming pros in Fort Worth. Got me in the ring, moved me around, turned sparring partners loose on me. He taught me. I learned to throw the basic suite of punches—not especially well, as there was little that could be done about my substandard athleticism or my lack of foot and hand speed, but well enough to say, OK, the kid is ready for a real fight.
I got one in Waco, ninety-some miles south. My parents and little brother and sister went down to see it. Gary was the referee, and one of his assistants was my cornerman. The bell rang, I lumbered out, threw a punch, left it dangling out there, and the other kid hit me directly in the nose. I dropped my arms, started bawling, and Gary ended matters. Abject humiliation, the worst I’ve ever felt, poured over me. The memory, even now as I type this, is sticky with failure and shame.
I suppose my folks would have been fine with a lost night and a long drive home and no more boxing for me, but I went back to the gym the following Monday. I fought again the next Saturday and went the full three rounds. It was another loss, in that the other kid’s arm was raised by the referee, but it was also the biggest win ever.
That season of boxing ended with my holding a 1-8 record and emerging into the rest of my life with a surety that I could handle myself in a physical confrontation. Funny how one never really showed up after that. Oh, I had a few boyhood rows with neighborhood kids, and I’d lose some and win some, but the gift of boxing is that it just wasn’t worth the time of anyone who knew me to throw fists. I might lose, but I wouldn’t make the winning easy for the other guy. Confidence and security come with that.
For some time that season and beyond, I harbored fanciful dreams of fighting professionally, but both my record and my latent suburban softness exposed the incongruity of my capabilities and my fleeting aspirations. I had a trainer that year who wanted to see if I had some pent-up rage and whether he could coax it out of me. Well, I didn’t, at least not in any quantity that was useful to him--I was freaking nine—and his methods stood at odds with the limits of my comprehension. He would tell me about the great Roberto Duran and how he would convince himself before a fight that the man across the ring had done horrible, unspeakable things to someone Duran loved, to the point that his mind accepted the premise and his hands would chop down the opponent who’d been reduced to a mere proxy. It was jarring to hear that talk when I was a fourth-grader, and it remains jarring to consider at age fifty. I couldn’t access that kind of raw anger, not then and certainly not now. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
When it came to boxing, I fell in love with artistry, not power. I adored a boxing champion from my hometown, Donald Curry, who in my youth had more of my attention than Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson. Years later, I wrote a novel about a boxer, a man who also lacked rage but had world-class talent. The Hugo Hunter of my imagination was a winner but couldn’t scale the biggest heights. Like the very real Donald Curry, the fictional Hugo closed the book on his fighting life by leaving unrealized potential on the table. I find the stories of striving that comes up short so much more compelling than triumphant narratives, whether in real life or between the pages. If we haven’t approached the fullness of what we can be, and we still have time to work at it, that’s a reason to keep punching, right?
“What I had was not a lack of passion. I had an abundance of human frailty. You want to tag me with that, go right ahead. Guilty. But don’t say I didn’t have heart.”—The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter
With more yesterdays behind me than tomorrows ahead, I think sometimes about what it felt like to be young and afraid and how transformative it was to be given something that took the fear away. Nostalgia is nice and all, but I hope I’m not someday prompted to rely on that muscle memory and square off. I can’t be sure the fight is still within me, and in any case, I’m old enough to be someone’s grandpa and should be done with such foolishness. Leave me alone and stay the hell off my lawn.
On the other hand, as long as I’m on this side of the dirt, I’d like to have some vitality, because the air I breathe doesn’t taste as good without it. I don’t have to take the guy who lives across the street up to Knuckle Ridge and see who can hurt the other. That would be stupid and pointless, and I try to stay out of those areas as much as possible, unsuccessful though I sometimes am.
I’m thinking here of lifelong learning, of having some kind of ongoing or shifting challenge, of keeping an eye on some beacon beyond myself that offers a reason for getting up each day beyond obligation and the allure of breakfast.
Gary Barcroft taught me to throw a jab and a right cross and a left hook and an uppercut. They were good lessons for the time, for the kid I was, and for the man I was yet to become. Forty-plus years on, I feel most alive when I have something new to learn. Maybe that’s progress. Maybe that’s how I move from middle age into dotage with a modicum of grace and a manageable amount of frustration.
I can see examples on both ends of the spectrum in the men I call father. My dad was born on the cusp of summer in 1939 and is sliding through the remainder of his days bewildered by what he sees from a world that has left him behind. A more accurate assessment would be that he left himself on the side of the road with a set of skills and interests that stopped expanding sometime around 1985. He’s stubbornly not online, except to the extent that I serve as a proxy. Computers confuse him. Phone trees enrage him. Betrayed by his failing eyes, he can no longer dabble in fixing things, in jury-rigging solutions, or in driving his truck (he no longer has a truck, nor a license) to a fishing hole. He sits and he waits for his next doctor’s appointment or our next backgammon game, and he’s astonished that he somehow made it this far and, distressingly, that he seems to keep going. He’s 81, and he comes across as so much older.
My stepfather, a January 1942 baby, runs and reads. He builds websites and chases his grandchildren around the yard. His interests are wide. He’s always been that way, for as long as I’ve known him (going on 48 years now). At 78, almost 79, he seems two decades younger than my dad does. The difference isn’t rooted fully, or even mostly, in the physical condition. It’s in his willingness to engage mentally and emotionally with the world he occupies.
Put more simply: One man has yielded to his fear, and the other keeps finding some fight.
The lessons from both of them are mine to take.
Originally published November 20, 2020
I knew the anxiety was coming before it made a full reveal of itself, when it was lurking several levels below the surface, before my toes began tapping, before my fingers started clenching and unclenching, before my attention started doing walkabouts in the middle of essential tasks. I knew what it was about. I knew what it wanted from me.
I’m a restless man, which I grew into after being a restless boy and before that a restless baby. There’s a story that predates any of my memories, one told by my mother. She apparently went to my doctor and said, essentially, what gives with this kid? He stays up late. He doesn’t sleep through the night. Is this normal? And the doctor chuckled and said, well, there is no normal. If it affects his development, it’ll be something to address. If not, not.
Well, here I am, fifty years on. We can have a debate sometime about how the whole development thing went, but this much is undeniable: I’m restless. In my work, in my relationships, in my interests, in my physical position on this earth. The coming anxiety was about that last bit. I needed to go somewhere. Our pandemic year makes the particulars of going decidedly more complicated than they were in the Before Times. Who’s going with you? Where? Who are you going to see there? You’re not going to eat indoors, are you?
My answers, right down the line:
Livingston, Montana, and points beyond and between.
A couple of people.
I told my wife on a Monday that I wanted to do it. No, that I needed to do it. On the subsequent Thursday, I did it. We did it, Fretless and me. It was about time.
We’ve been back in Montana for a little more than seven months, Elisa and me and Fretless and Spatz the cat. We left Maine and our abbreviated experiment of living there as COVID-19 flared on the East Coast and the byways between Maine and Montana largely emptied out. We got a household and the contents of our lives moved not just once but twice—first into a temporary condo while we waited for the renters to leave the house we still owned here in Billings, second into the house. Through it all, we kept our heads low and ourselves relatively safe, even as the infections rose with ferocity in our old town that had turned new again. We formulated and ditched plans. No, we wouldn’t meet my folks in Denver. Too dangerous. No, I wouldn’t drive to Texas alone to see them. Too much of a time investment, and too dangerous. No, Elisa wouldn’t fly back East to see her mom and siblings. Too expensive, too much quarantining on both ends, too dangerous.
It’s been mostly OK. I’ve been blessed with plenty to do, having a full-time job that was already conducted from home before the rest of the country discovered it out of necessity. Freelance jobs come my way—as many as I need and not more than I want. I’ve had a couple of pipeline inspection gigs—did I mention that I’m restless in the ways of work?—that I could drive to. We’ve been more fortunate than many. Our sacrifices—not seeing friends, not traveling at will, keeping our distance, wearing a mask—have been reasonable and not at all onerous. It would be errant of me to suggest otherwise.
And yet …
When you’re kinetic, a word that sounds so much better than restless, you sometimes have to go.
I settled on Livingston for three reasons:
1. I can get there from here.
2. Of all the wonderful towns in Montana, Livingston is the closest thing to a second hometown to me. It’s the place from which one of my side gigs, as design director of Montana Quarterly, emanates. (I have mentioned the whole restless-in-work thing, right? Just checking.) There are friendly faces in downtown shops and on side streets and at restaurants, or at least there were when you could go to such places.
3. Parks Reece wanted an old wasps’ nest I cut down from one of my trees this fall, and he was willing to give me some of his art in exchange.
Parks, in so many ways, is the perfect embodiment of the quality that has made Montana my home even though I didn’t grow up here, and a perfect illustration of what I hoped to find in Maine and did not, which compelled my return. I didn’t meet him on my own. He became part of my circle of friends because others, most notably my boss at the Quarterly, Scott McMillion, drew me into theirs. Think of the old trick with the chalices stacked in a pyramid, with wine filling the uppermost cup and cascading down until all of them are brimming. In nearly a decade and a half of living in Montana, this is what it’s been for me—I’ve made friends who’ve had friends who’ve become my friends. They fill my cup. I hope I fill theirs. I try.
At Parks’ gallery, while Fretless alternately hid between my feet and ventured halting approaches to as many new people as he’s met in his short lifetime, we talked about this, what I’d looked for in Maine and hadn’t uncovered. Though I found the people there nice enough, there came a juncture where niceties ended and more intimate friendships were harder to penetrate. There’s very much a “from away” label that gets put on people who haven’t been in Maine for generations upon generations. It happens in Montana, too, but there’s often some dynamic tension to it. For one thing, if you’re a fifth-generation Montanan and you have some sense beyond yourself, you have to give some consideration to the idea that you and your people have been stealing what belongs to someone else for a long time. For another, there’s a welcoming nature I’ve found here that I didn’t find there. From the get-go with Montana, I’ve been comfortable with positioning myself as an outsider who found his way inside. I can’t claim it as heart earth. I can claim it as a found home. That didn’t happen in Maine, and it became increasingly clear that it wouldn’t happen in Maine.
None of this is empirical, by the way, and I don’t want to end up in the weeds of who or where is more welcoming and why. This is merely my own experience, informed by who I was and when it was that I encountered each place. And that, I’m well aware, counts only so far as I allow myself to follow it.
And, really, it’s not remotely my point here. Let’s move on.
McMillion and I grabbed a couple of sandwiches and took them to Sacajawea Park, along the Yellowstone River, and had a socially distanced meal at a picnic table. Fretless got his first-ever scraps of people food, little chunks of bread tossed to him by Scott, and while I’ve been steadfast about not letting him become habituated to such delights, I had to relent. If I deserved a treat, so did he.
The rapport Scott and I have is a solid and satisfying adult friendship, one I treasure and one that is built out of a few tentpole commonalities and a nice smattering of differences. He’s a hardcore outdoorsman, a hunter and a fisherman and a guy who knows his way around a canoe. I…am not. Scott likes to disappear into the backcountry or onto the vast prairie or down some stream. I think I’d like to rent an RV and park it in the shadow of a mountain, especially if the RV has a satellite dish and I can tune in a ballgame. We’re both big guys, mostly nonviolent, and as such we’ve had separate but similar instances of being drawn into physical confrontations that we’d have rather avoided in favor of a good book. He’s learned in the ways and the history and the art and the literature of his home state. I’m learned in the ways that get his magazine into print. We’re a good team, and we have some good laughs.
After lunch, we walked along the Yellowstone River, giving Fretless a chance to stretch his stubby little legs, and we swapped stories of long-ago youthful indiscretions and more pressing contemporary concerns. Before Fretless and I left, I told him I was going to take the long way home, around the Crazy Mountains and up through White Sulphur Springs and Harlowton and on home to Billings. He said that sounded dandy.
He probably didn’t remember the last time I’d taken that route. I sure as hell did.
When I plotted the trip with Fretless, I didn’t think of just how microcosmic it would be of the total Montana topographical experience, but it really was: In a day’s driving, interrupted by several stops, I saw mountains and river valleys and glaciated plains and bald, flattop buttes and fallow fields. I drove through sunshine and rain and flurrying snow. I drove on dry asphalt and on icy patches where the sun doesn’t alight. I had a whole year in a single day in Montana.
I find the mountains and the rivers easy enough to appreciate and admire. You have to work harder to love the prairie or the badlands or a flat stretch where the wind blows so hard that it threatens to knock you down. I’ve learned to express my unabashed ardor for that Montana, the one that generally doesn’t end up on postcards. I live in the eastern half of the state, where the land and the life are harsher and drier and more emptied out. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life now on that side of the state. There’s a depth of field to an endless horizon, and a clarity of thought you can find in pondering it. I missed that while in Maine, too, and hungered to come back to it. It’s become a part of me in unexpected ways.
On Highway 89, in White Sulphur Springs, I took note of the little park I’d pulled into on an October day in 2014, when Elisa had been on the other end of my phone, trying to talk me out of a dark hole I’d crawled into. She wasn’t my wife then, just a friend who knew I was hurting, punctured by the twin disasters of an unfurling divorce and an ill-advised rebound romance that was doing what such things do. It was bouncing all over the damned place, battering me with each reverberation. My friend, on the East Coast, told me to hang in, that it would get better, that she didn’t much like to fly but she would get on a plane and see me through it if I needed her to. I told her no. She could sense the turmoil. She couldn’t see the whirlpool. I didn’t want her getting near it.
I don’t want to overstate this or minimize what it is to be in true psychological danger. That day, that moment, I think I was in peril. I’d had a cup of coffee with McMillion in Livingston, and he’d talked me through some of the turmoil. He suggested I go back by circumnavigating the Crazies. Spend some time, he said. Let rationality have a go at me.
Irrationality got there first. As I drove deeper into Montana, I thought more and more about pulling the car over, parking it, and setting out on foot. That’s when Elisa called. She told me to go to the next town and park and call her back. So that’s what I did. The particulars? I’ll hold tight to those. I’m here. She’s here. The stuff that hurt then doesn’t hurt now. Time and tide, man.
White Sulphur looked the same but different today. For one thing, a different man drove into it, in a different year, in a different car, with a sweet puppy in the passenger seat rather than a festering bag of worry and regret. Upon driving into town, I had my mind not on my own pain but on the life of the great writer Ivan Doig, who grew up in White Sulphur and who drew on its impressions for a lifetime’s worth of work. I wondered what it was here that burned into his memory and stoked his imagination. I know a little something about the overdeveloped interior life of a writer; I, too, am afflicted. I never met the man, though I badly wanted to. I would have enjoyed talking about that with him. I read him voraciously starting at age nineteen, and his books were like guideposts into what I wanted to do and to be, even though I ended up treading different literary ground.
The longer I do this—and by this, I mean go through this life, although I could just as easily mean attempting to distill the complexities of human life into a story that has a beginning and an end—the more I have to acknowledge that memory is at the thrumming center of damn near everything. It holds out caution. It transmogrifies into inspiration. It informs choice. It drives perspective.
As I turned east on Highway 12 and headed into the homeward portion of the drive, memories came at me like bolt-action rifle shots. Here in late 2020, I ran headlong into midyear 2006, when I’d resigned from my job in California and planned a move to Montana with a sort of half-baked plan for a writing life. First, though, I had a trip that had long been on the books, hooking up with my father down in Albuquerque and driving, just the two of us, up to Great Falls, Montana, the part of the state he was from. It seems almost absurd now, as he’s still taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, but there was an elegiac tinge to that trip when we undertook it. His health had been not so good, and we wondered, or at least I wondered, how many chances we would get.
With Fretless, I was driving east on Highway 12. In June 2006, Dad and I were driving west. In November 2020, I kept looking around for touchstones of memory, and I found them in the straightaways and in the rock formations that looked like stacked waffle cookies and in the river that alternately hugs the bends in the highway and rambles off into the distance.
I fixated on one particular memory of that long-ago year, of seeing a rusting backhoe on the south side of the highway, stilled and silent and abandoned. In subsequent years, after my initial move to Montana, I would have occasion to go up to Great Falls, and I would spot that backhoe every time and recall the first time I saw it, and I would wonder why it had ever been put there and, more pressing, why it had been left to time and the elements. And brother, if you want to know where a spark of fiction comes from, consider the extrapolations you can make from that starting point. A forgotten backhoe beyond some fenceline. When? Who? What? Why?
I looked for that piece of machinery today, in the dying light and amid the snoring chorus of my worn-out pup. It didn’t show. I might have missed it. The relentless vegetation might have overtaken it. Whoever left it there might have come for it at last. Who knows?
At the junction with Highway 3, I bore right, Acton just ahead, Billings forty-some miles in the distance. Fretless stirred, activated and attenuated and bouncy, a dog who really should switch to decaf. I snapped one last picture, of the big sky that was over me and over the one who was waiting at home for me. I got on with getting there.
The restlessness often gets what it comes for. Sometimes, I do, too.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.