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.
* * *
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.
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.