Moments of Grace in Montana

Sitting by the pond behind our borrowed cabin in Montana, I’m reading Where the Crawdads Sing, a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. It’s so bad that I can’t put it down. So unspeakably awful that it’s now a major motion picture starring actors I’ve never heard of.

The Swamp Girl, you see, is the main character. Scorned by the townsfolk, abandoned by her mother, beaten by her drunken ne’er-do-well dad. And then befriended by a saintly Black family. Someone teaches the Swamp Girl to read and, before you know it, she’s a scientist. Authoring celebrated books on crawdads, shells and such. Then the Swamp Girl is accused of murder. Courtroom scenes ensue. When all she ever wanted was love. Did I mention she’s beautiful?

I bought the book by accident (don’t ask), and since our cabin lacks wifi, I’m now irrevocably stuck with it. Plus, I paid good money for the Crawdad book. So, just as I would never throw away a piece of barely edible leftover chicken, I’m going to plod through the whole damn thing.

“I want to know what happens to the Swamp Girl,” I say, just a little too defensively.

I’m gamely chewing on another chapter when a movement catches my eye. I glance up. Eighteen inches from my face, a hummingbird hovers, studying me intently, green iridescent body swinging gently between vibrating wings. Satisfied, the hummingbird zooms off.

Trouble in Paradise

In June of this year, record rains and mudslides washed out the northern road into Yellowstone Park, causing tourism to plummet in Paradise Valley. Visitors can still enter Yellowstone on foot, if they’re accompanied by guides. But if you want to drive in, you have to bypass Paradise Valley and enter the park on the south side, through Wyoming. It’ll take three years to repair the road, which is a big economic blow to businesses in Paradise Valley, especially following the lean years of the pandemic. The town of Gardiner, at the park entrance, is particularly hard-hit. When we visit, it seems empty, bereft.

Livingston, you can safely presume

The former rail hub and ranching town of Livingston stands at the other end of Paradise, and we visit one day. Livingston is a handsome town (A River Runs Through It was filmed here). You can easily imagine its heyday: hitching posts in front of freshly-painted buildings, wooden sidewalks, dainty ladies dragging their crinolines over the straw and horseshit as they cross the dirt road.

Icons in Livingston

In a downtown of carefully curated shops, cafes and bars, you won’t find a single fast-food outlet. Except at its very entrance, at Mike’s Beefburger In-and-Out. Mike’s has been here since 1954 (“fast food” entered Merriam’s in 1951), and is open during baseball season, April to October. I wanted to eat there at first sight, but it was Sunday and the place is a shrine, so the lineup was too long.

I returned during the week and was, briefly, the only customer. I ordered a double-patty cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, which I took across the street to a picnic table situated on a patch of grass. I sat and watched the parade of locals drive up and order food, which they mostly ate in their pickups.

Further on, past Main Street, you get to the Teslow, a 75-foot grain elevator, or “prairie skyscraper.” There’s a committee in Livingston dedicated to saving the silo, which would be a good thing.

The Teslow is a “grand example of vernacular architecture.” That’s how the fancy-pants committee dedicated to saving the Teslow phrase their description. They also claim that it’s “a monument to the industries that built our town — farming, ranching, and the railroad.” That, too.

Radio station KPRK, with its spiralling Futurama fake antenna, stands just beyond the Teslow. The station still broadcasts, but not from here.

Another moment of grace

After dinner with some friends in Livingston, we drive the fifty kilometres back to our cabin, along Route 89. In the half hour before dark, colour and depth drain from the Absaroka mountains, reducing them to a high jagged scrim. In the half-light, the mountains flatten to silhouettes: remote, abstract, forbidding. Not so much stone, as the idea of stone. And this, for some reason, chills the heart.

The following evening, our last in Montana, we’re invited to an outdoor concert at the Old Saloon in Emigrant, a dot on the map halfway between Livingston and Gardiner. W.C. Huntley, a South Carolinian who now lives in Montana, is playing his usual set of twangy, old-fashioned covers and originals. I’m told he comes from a family of professionals: doctors and lawyers, mostly. But W.C. can’t quit the old-timey music, knowing perfectly well he’ll never get rich chasing his dream. He’s compact in size but charismatic, with a strong tenor voice and a confident picking style.

In Emigrant tonight it’s drizzling on and off, so most of the saloon patrons are indoors, whooping it up around the bar and taking turns at the two pool tables. The die-hards are outside, in freshly pressed jeans and pale cowboy hats, belt buckles glinting under the stage lights. The appointed bouncer, a baby-faced carpenter by trade, chats with us, “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” softening every sentence.

Under the spitting rain, with the wind whipping down from the Absaroka range, a bearded rancher in heavy boots rises from a picnic table with his girl and, with uncommon dignity and grace, leads her round the dance floor. Soon they’re joined by others, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Cowboy at the checkout

Livingston, Montana. I’m at the checkout at Albertson’s, a big U.S. grocery chain, when I line up behind the cowboy. The man towers over me — easily six-foot-six, with a white Stetson that extends his altitude by another half foot. He has a ZZ Top-calibre russet beard, shoulder-length hair and curling moustaches that give him the mournful air of a bewhiskered nineteenth-century homesteader or a murderer. He waits patiently behind a woman unloading cases of Mountain Dew and chicken parts.

I move to another checkout line for a better view. He wears Wrangler jeans tucked into suede knee-high boots. Under a black vest, a long-sleeve maroon shirt and a red bandana. At his wrists, wide leather cuffs studded with green rhinestones. A gold chain emerges from somewhere on his person, makes a loop, and terminates at a vest pocket. (To a watch? A picture of his mother? Opera glasses?)

I see no evidence of six-shooters, spurs or chaps. But he is holding a basket with several tubes of toothpaste, bottles of mouthwash and hair care products.

As I puzzle over the toiletries, a cashier at another checkout calls to me, “Excuse me, Mister, I’m open now. Would you like to pay?”

I catch the cowboy’s attention: “Sir, I think you were here first. After you.”

He pauses, touches his hat. “Thank you kindly.”

* * *

Our hosts in Paradise Valley have generously lent us a cabin on their property, which is fitted with large windows looking east and west. To the east is a pond fed by mountain streams from Emigrant Peak (nearly 11,000 ft.), which is part of the Absaroka Range. We’re at the foothills of Emigrant Peak, and so the mountain dominates the view and the light. During the morning hours, the three peaks repeat their purple silhouettes in the still water, and all is quiet, until the sun finally rises over their shoulders to stir things up.

Our hosts tell us that in the fall, hundreds of elk descend from Emigrant Peak, where they have been summering, to graze on the stubbled alfalfa fields below and to wait for winter.

Another large window, at the opposite side of the cabin, over our bed, gives a view of the distant Gallatin Range across Paradise Valley.

Approaching our cabin, nestled in the wooded patch on the right. Above us, Emigrant Peak.

The pond, just outside our kitchen window.

* * *

The cowboy at Albertson’s reminds me of The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott in the The Big Lebowski. A hammy cowpoke in a bowling alley, narrating a story to a hippie addled with dope and white Russians. Nothing could be clearer than a poke in the eye. And if The Stranger is the narrator, maybe even the creator, like all creators he has perfected the dramatic device of disappearing at just the right moment.

A poke in the eye. This Cadillac was in a parking lot on Main Street, Livingston, Montana.

When the cowboy at Albertson’s paid, I set the contents of my shopping cart on the counter, fumbled to locate my USD credit card, grabbed my bags, and only then looked up to see where he’d gone. I scanned the parking lot. Vanished. I regretted not following him. Was he driving a pickup or a Civic? And where was he headed? To the open range, or to a kid’s birthday party, to make animal balloons and perform rope tricks? I’m glad I never saw him leave.

* * *

People fly into Montana from all over the world, to cast trout flies in Yellowstone River, which threads its way through Paradise Valley. They buy bear repellent, hike the mountains, ride horses, eat bloody steaks, stare wide-eyed at the vistas, and raise hell in bars.

A voice tells me I should be doing at least some of these things instead of sitting by this pond, watching the light change, moment by moment, along and below Emigrant Peak. I pay no heed.

At mile marker 49, Route 89, along the Yellowstone River, between Emigrant and Livingston, Montana.