Tag Archives: Wolves

The Essence

Cobalt Crisp
Cobalt Crisp

As these words find form, my heart is thumping. The heat of the woodstove is chipping away at the frost which is poking countless pinholes in my cheeks. Cold is radiating off my clothes. I’ve just come back inside, and the fresh air has stolen my breath. A look out the window reveals brilliant sunlight reflecting a healthy snowfall on the mountaintop across the way. Down low, there’s barely a skiff. The high today made it out of the negative numbers – barely: it’s zero degrees, Fahrenheit.  The low last night was -8, tonight the weatherman says -14. It’s cold, but not the coldest I’ve experienced – that was -30 a few years back – and let me tell you, that’s a different world.

Cold Creek
Cold Creek

On days like today, when the sun is shining, it is oh so deceiving. The sky is as brilliant a cobalt blue you’ll ever see. The mountains stand prouder, the trees taller.  The creeks seem to run a little faster. Okay, that last one is a bit of my imagination, but to keep from freezing I know I would. All in all, winter is Montana’s grandest season. For those who’ve only experienced Montana’s charms in the summer, you’re missing out, but I can’t say that I blame you, I can relate. When I first started dating Tammy, I was petrified of the idea of a Montana winter. It carries a mystique. Back then, the worldly east coast boy that I was knew of its reputation. What I didn’t know it is the season when Mother Nature reveals her most beautiful self, but like so many beings that possess alluring attributes, she harbors a harsh side. For the adventurous, she is a siren, her cry seducing you to frolic in the elements.

The Road to Sunset
The Road to Sunset

In this my eleventh Montana winter – a tenure in which the old-timers no longer consider one a rookie – I’ve seen my fair share of people wanting to test their mettle. I’ve seen success and I’ve seen people flee as fast as the first plane ride south. I can’t help but think of the thirty-something couple who ‘retired’ from the whirlwind of Washington D.C. to the refines of a remote cabin. In there weekly sojourns to the bar, the cost of their lifestyle decision echoed from their expressions to their posture. What was once a refreshed smile soon morphed into scowls and hunched shoulders. Soon they were gone, together a victim to one of Montana’s seductions – Quaintness. It’s understandable, especially coming from inside the Beltway. What could be so difficult about living the ‘simple life?’

The reality is it isn’t so simple. It takes preparation and a willingness to forego. It’s one thing to winter in a city like Missoula or Billings, it’s a different story in the hills, where high-culture very likely is a conversation held atop a barstool, and a quick trip to the C-store for a loaf of a bread or a gallon of milk is an impossibility. On a bitter night, a flat-tire could mean the difference between life and death. Especially if one’s not prepared. What’s that? I have AAA. Forget about it! You’ll most likely not have cell service.

“Screw that,” I hear you say. “I’m staying home.”

Cabin Fever
Cabin Fever

Oh my. Cabin Fever is a real thing. I’ve experienced it. It’s the closest I’ve come to literally jumping off a bridge. It explains why so many people go crazy in the mountains and it leads to the philosophy that there are only two types of people who live here: Those going crazy and those already there. Cabin Fever is like Chinese Water Torture without the water. Each hour another drip of frozen nothingness dinks off your forehead. Soon objects within the paintings on the walls start moving. Some of them have conversations. Some of them stare at you. You feel it and turn around only to find your dog giving you the evil eye. It’s so cold, that unless Fido is a Husky, it’s hunkering down in front of the fireplace cursing you for not having an indoor bathroom for your best friend.  “Will you stop looking at me,” you bark at the dog.

fireplaceWhen it’s time to throw another log on the fire, you realize more firewood is needed. With a deep breath, you turn to the dog and say: “I have to go outside, you’re coming too!” You open the door and step outside. You’re met by the Seductive Paw. No, it’s not a bear out of hibernation who suddenly looks like a good option to cuddle with, it’s the feeling you get when you step into the cold. It’s a brisk kiss on the cheek. It’s not so bad. Even in a hoody, zero doesn’t seem horrible. Maybe you fall for its allure and you take your shoes off and jump barefoot into the snow. Even if you’re not like me and would never do something so foolish, it’s only a matter of time before the paw slaps you across the head. It starts with realization that your cold and it quickly morphs into the shivers. Only the cold isn’t skin deep, it burrows deep, digging into the marrow of your bones. You can’t stop shivering, but you don’t want to go inside.

“Wait a minute John, why wouldn’t I want to go back inside?”

“The essence,” I answer.

The Essence
The Essence

Even in the light of a crescent moon, shadows from the trees reach out to embrace you. It’s so quiet that you can hear the shadows stretching for you. If the creek isn’t frozen, the tumbling water plays a soundtrack so sublime that mountaintops appear to be dancing with the stars. If it is in the deep of winter and even the creek is in slumber, the silence is such that you can almost hear the earth coasting in its orbit. But it’s the stars that are, well, the stars of the show. Thousands of them, shining brightly as they watch you catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. If you’re really lucky, the cry of a faraway wolf or the hoot of an owl will rattle your soul. In that moment, that fleeting moment, you’ve felt it. The essence of being alive; the essence of what a miraculous place we call home.

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HooDoo VooDoo

untitled (24)Now that the firewood is split, stacked, and the last of the warm afternoon sun has been sucked from Indian Summer, it’s time for a story. A story that involves glimmering leaves, an insane sunset, fourteen moonrises and a road name from a Stephen King short story. So throw a log in the fire – or turn the thermostat up – and put your feet up. Hopefully by the time you’ve read this, you’ll understand the knot in my stomach or maybe even feel the chill that reverberated up and down my spine.

2013-10-04 Hoodoo 2012 011
The sky above Scurvy Creek.

Every October, my better half gets a hankering for us skip over HooDoo Pass and explore one of the many endless primitive roads that snake through the Clearwater Forest. She really has to twist my arm to cooperate. Can you sense the sarcasm? I too, enjoy seeing what’s around the next corner or over the next hill. This year’s pilgrimage had plenty of both. Not that I had a bad feeling about this trip, but my antenna raised a bit the morning we set off. Maybe it was because that week, the alternator went kaput on Tammy’s car and only the kindness of a nearby neighbor rescued her from a five mile hike home – in darkness, uphill, and in snow. Armed with a new alternator, topped off with fluids and a full gas tank we nosed the Subaru over the funny sounding pass and into the never-ending forest.

The previous year’s journey saw us travel a hundred miles off asphalt until we came across a town in the middle of nowhere. It was a two bar, one gas station kind of place, where the favorite color was camouflage. I immediately fell in love with the town, but my infatuation may have had more to do with 1970’s gas pumps than the personality of the town or its inhabitants. The girl at the gas station didn’t seem to know any of the town names I inquired about. And they didn’t even have a map.

“John, what about your GPS?” I can hear you ask.

“Really?”  If you know me, you know I don’t carry that kind of tech in my vehicles. Tammy and I like to dead reckon. Heck, we drove to the Oregon Coast without getting on any interstates. At one point during that trip in some remote ranching area of eastern Oregon we followed a truck and decided that whatever direction it turned we would go in the opposite direction. It’s just how we roll; the adventure is more important than the destination. But I digress.  It wasn’t until we got home – after this year’s trip – that I looked at a map and saw that we were merely thirty miles from our goal, and by paved roads to boot. But over a burger and without the luxury of hindsight we decided to call it and we retraced our steps through the Hundred Mile Forest. It was during this jaunt that we bantered away and came up with one of our most memorable sayings – Karmamyalgia. The term is a reference to a certain pain-in-the-ass that got what was coming to him/her – in the form of chronic pain. Used in a sentence, it would go something like this: Luther’s Irritable Bowl Syndrome metastasized into Karmamyalgia, what a shame. The term will make its debut in my upcoming novel Montana Rural, until then, it’s our secret.

2013-10-04 Hoodoo 2012 005Anyway, this year I decided that when we came to a certain fork in the road we would go in the opposite direction than the previous trip. When we passed a place called Scurvy Creek I had images of our car breaking down and us contracting scurvy and our asses falling off or something like that. Why would I have such visions? On a road trip similar to this – one much closer to home – we got stuck in a snow bank, had to sleep in our vehicle and hike out the next morning. Getting stranded is a common nagging fear, especially the more you take silly adventures, especially over roads where vampire rocks like to jump up and sink their fangs into oil pans. Because why my wife is the queen of preparation, I don’t fear bodily harm or even death – I’m certain we could weather just about any storm. No, what I fear of dealing with the inconvenience of hiking fifty or so miles and then returning to rescue the vehicle.

Now my gut told me that Highway 12, the closest known paved road and what I deemed the Yellow Brick Road back home, had to lie somewhere over one of these mountains. And as long as we had over a half a tank of gas I was willing to press forward finding the elusive way out of the endless forest. Further we drove, passing waving fishermen and gawking hunters. Then we hit paydirt. A sign. Highway 12 55 miles.  Yes! Instincts had served me right. Little did I know, this is where the adventure began.

Math told me it would be at least a five hour trip.  When the going was good, top speed would be fifteen miles an hour. The car climbed this hill, rounded that corner. With each new scene, both of

An elusive Jackalope.
An elusive Jackalope.

us craned our necks to see an elusive Jackalope or maybe a bear or moose. Mile after mile, only rocks and ruts greeted us. To the side of the road, hillsides gave way to canyon walls and deep ravines. In the distance snow speckled mountaintops.  “There the one’s on the other side of Highway 12. That one’s in the Selway,” I said brashly, so sure of myself.

Soon the afternoon passed to early evening and we were climbing as the sun was sinking. We rounded this mountain and the next until we appeared to be hand in hand with the sun. Did I mention that we started to pass over snow on the road? Not much, but enough to let us know it was there.  Across ravines, more snow glowed pink in the dying light. We stopped the car. We got out. A chorus of wolf howls greeted us. Look at the sunset pictures and imagine the soundtrack. Unfortunately we didn’t see them, they were somewhere along the mountainside that we had just passed.

First hint of snow.
First hint of snow.

Refreshed and energized we set forward. Headlights on we eventually came to an unmarked intersection.  We had two choices, go to the left and head uphill, or go right and downhill. As far as I know, rivers and the roads that follow them don’t run on mountaintops, so off to the right we went. Soon the full moon peaked over the mountains. With the moonrise came the willies, and it’s not easy to admit being creeped out by one of my own creations.  I wrote a story about a ghost that feeds off the energy of the living, and he happened to stalk his prey under the light of the full moon. In a place where the nearest electric light was miles and miles away, maybe such demons really do lurk. Around each corner I prepared myself to see a dead three year boy waiting for us. The pitfalls of a creative mind, you know – we’re mostly our own boogeymen.

All that was well and good until we came to another intersection and were faced with a sign directly out of Stephen King’s  Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. It’s a short story about

Magical Sunset
Magical Sunset

a lady who is so insistent on finding shortcuts that she starts finding roads that aren’t there. As she finds more and more they become stranger and stranger, more challenging and frightening, until she comes across Motorway B in the Maine woods. The payback was her adventures turned her mortal being into a goddess. We weren’t in Maine, but we did find a motorway – Lolo Motorway. Though it wasn’t paved. It was a glorified two-track road with ravenous vampire rocks. Again we were posed with another choice. And this time, I made the wrong choice. At least I thought I did. To the left was blankety-blank  saddle and to the right was so and so creek. Hmmm, creeks are lower than saddles so we again turned right. We started to climb. And climb. And climb. We climbed so far that we saw the moon rise two more times as we gained back all the elevation we dropped. At points the road got narrower and the limbs of trees snatched at our passing car. Snow began to line the road. I started looking at the gas gauge, sure that whatever was left in the tank wouldn’t be enough. An hour passed. Below us, deep canyons shimmered in moonlight. The road turned back into the forest and continued climbing.  My patience was growing thin. I just wanted to find Highway 12.

And then we came to an intersection and my wife, whose Indian name is One-who-doesn’t-read-signs cried out: “Highway 12, 10 miles.”

I slammed on the brakes. I looked to the left and smiled. I saw the sign. Then, I had a moment of panic. The road was blanketed with a foot of snow. Remember, we once got stuck in a snow bank on a remote mountain road.  I took a deep breath and turned the steering wheel. I pressed down the accelerator. We hit the snow and started to plow. The tires dug in and then they slipped, the front end of the car pointed towards the mountainside. Tammy barked orders from the passenger seat. I don’t remember what she said. I was too focused. We climbed further and plowed more snow. We sailed over the crest of the mountain and just like that the road was dry. I turned to her and said that we should be in a Subaru commercial.

Last light.
Last light.

Just when I thought we were out of the woods another fear arose. I turned to my wife and asked: “What if the gate is locked?” For those of you who don’t know, most mountain roads are gated and come October the Forest Service comes along and locks them for the winter. Primarily for wildland preservation, but another unspoken reason is to save people from themselves. With each passing milepost counted down to the moment of truth.  What would we do if the gate was locked? We didn’t have enough gas to turn around and go back where we came from, and I also knew I didn’t have the nerve.  Mile Marker 3, Mile Marker 2, Mile Marker 1… What would we find?

An open gate of course. It was hunting season after all.  After we hit pavement I realized Mrs. Todd was onto something. Each adventure seems to be a bit more unnerving, but in return we are paid back with incredible sights, wonderful memories, and a spirit that is fed and refreshed. At the start of a new journey one can’t predict what will be found, but one thing is for sure, I never imagined coming across a Motorway in an Idaho forest.

The Jesus Bum The Barroom Chronicles… Episode 16

imagesCAOGENV6The door swung open, nobody paid any  attention. All eyes were glued to the television and the tenth rerun of A Christmas Story.  It was Christmas night and the bar was crowded enough to put a smile on my face. Until that night, I had never worked the holiday, and being my first year at the helm, I penciled my name on the work schedule. I was pleasantly surprised both at the amount of business and the relaxed mood. I didn’t know what to expect, whatever I was expecting wasn’t the softball of a night I was enjoying. Heck, I was so naïve about Montana culture, that three years after moving here, I thought all bars were closed like in my home town. A more cynical explanation was given that by 4:00 PM Christmas afternoon most people were sick of their families and needed an escape.

Cold air swooshed through the open door and accompanied him as he walked towards the bar. His hair was wild and dirty, his face haggard and rife with stubble. Above worn boots were ragged jeans, a ripped flannel and a down vest; he wore nothing else to combat the cold winter air. In his hand was a paper bag, which he set on the bar with a thump.

Could this be The Jesus Bum?
Could this be The Jesus Bum?

“What can I get ya?” I asked.

“Do you know a Blankety Blank?”

“Nope, never heard of her,” I answered.

Cold air radiated from his frown. “How ’bout you?” he asked the patrons closest to him.

“Nope,”  was the resounding answer.

The air seemed to escape his lungs. His head suddenly seemed too heavy for his neck. When he looked back up, sadness swam across the deep pools that were his eyes. “I rode the bus to Missoula, and I walked the rest of the way. I wanted to give her this, but I dropped it and busted it.”  He slid a wolf figurine from the bag. It was a dusty ceramic that looked like it hunted the back shelves of Goodwill, quietly earning a living preying on ceramic dear and elk, until snatched from its den and dropped on some roadside. The damage wasn’t horrible, a front leg had been amputated, but the bum managed to save the dismembered leg.

A crowd started to gather.

“Do you got anything to fix it?” he asked. His voice was quiet, but his gaze shouted. His eyes pierced my recently developing bullshit detector and I had the feeling this wasn’t some ordinary run-of-the-mill drifter.

il_fullxfull.244824797“Nope,” I said before turning to the crowd. “Anyone got any epoxy at home? Any glue?”

Most either ignored me or rumbled no. Someone said yeah, let me run home and check. While we waited the bum asked, “Got a beer? Don’t got no money, but I could use one.”

On a normal night, or if I didn’t have that feeling, I would have been on the verge of saying something like I’m not a soup kitchen for drifters, but I didn’t and instead I quietly poured him a pint of draft. Maybe it was simply Christmas spirit.

Others around him again asked the lady’s name.  He repeated it, everybody shrugged. He gave the address, it was a legitimate address in town.  Time passed, people returned to their crowd or watching the movie. The bum sat quietly, sipping his beer and watching those around him. From behind a cloak of ramshackle desperation a calmness emerged. It bathed him, it gave him presence;  a serene disposition. He waited patiently speaking very little until the door opened again and our local hero walked in with epoxy.  The crowd again gathered and a committee of ceramic veterinarians went about reattaching the wolf’s amputated leg. The bum simply watched.

When the operation was finished he moved for the wolf.

“Whoa, it’s gotta set,”  the lead veterinarian said.

“It’s gettin’ late, she’s probably in bed already,” the Bum said, his calmness slipping a tad.

“Have another beer,” I said. He didn’t refuse.  As he drank he didn’t have much to say. It was obvious he didn’t relish being the center of attention. People flittered away from him and went

The Bar Nazi and the Jesus Bum enjoying the moment
The Bar Nazi and the Jesus Bum enjoying the moment

about doing their things.  Soon he was just another loner sitting at the edge of the bar.  At some point while doing what I do, he slipped out the door unnoticed. Only his empty mug sat at the end of the bar.

“That wasn’t an ordinary drifter,” I said.

“Phffft. Don’t count on it,” one person said.

“You got a lot to learn,” another commented.

“Smelled horrible,” another complained.

And so on and on the comments reigned.  Maybe it was my idealism,  for I hadn’t yet earned my doctorate  in cynicism; I had yet been exposed to the general wretchedness of humankind. That night, I felt like there was something more than met the eye.  The simple events of that Christmas night still give me hope in humankind. Every Christmas since, I’ve wondered about the Jesus Bum and thank him for the lesson.