Sophomore year of college I saved up and bought a big Mountainsmith backpack. It has all the new fancy bells and whistles and from what I could tell, fit like a glove. Hundreds of miles through the Virginia and North Carolina sections of the Appalachian Trail that pack carried my gear. When I moved west it saw trips in Yellowstone and Glacier, the Elkhorns, the Snowies, the Absaorkas, up the Lima Peaks and down into the Missouri Breaks.
Last year that old trusted pack broke on a multiday trip into Glacier with C3. I tried to rig it back together but on a short trip into the Bob Marshall this past summer I sighed the sigh of resignation, knowing my beloved pack was not going to be on my next trip.
The other day a box showed up from REI. Smithers scored a sweet deal on a fancy-pants Osprey back. This past weekend I dropped my old Mountainsmith at the goodwill store. Goodbye old friend, many miles you caught my sweat, kept me warm and were with me as we discovered the most beautiful places on earth. Thank you.
It was the first day of 2018, January 1. A big snow had fallen two days before and we struggled to get up the North Fork Road to find a place to shoot skeet. It was already getting dark when we made our way south, back to Columbia Falls. As usually I was driving way too fast and just happened to see something on the east bank of the North Fork. As the ABS engaged we slid to a stop and quickly reversed. Turns out I didn’t need to rush, they were two Moose who had just crossed the river. In fact, at first we thought there was just one but then the other stepped out from behind the first. They were still for many minutes. I imagine they waited for the chill of the freezing water to fade away from their numb legs. Then, slowly they moved into Glacier National Park.
It started to snow this weekend though the backcountry has been covered for a few weeks. I can only imagine the slow hardship that winter is on animals. It’s a silent death, or a narrow survival.
It was on this day, the 29th of November, 1781 that the white crew of the slave ship Zong began murdering slaves by throwing them overboard. The crew hoped to claim the murdered slaves as part of an insurance policy that allowed slavers to make claims for cargo that was jettisoned in order to save other cargo. Due to faulty navigation, the Zong had sailed past their intended port in Jamaica and had run out of drinking water after the mistake had been identified. The plan for murder was made after the slavers feared the starved slaves would die a natural death.
On 29 November, the crew assembled to consider the proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard. James Kelsall later claimed that he had disagreed with the plan at first but it was soon unanimously agreed. On 29 November, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea. On 1 December, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard, and 36 more followed in the next few days. Another ten, in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers, jumped into the sea. Having heard the shrieks of the victims as they were thrown into the water, one slave requested that the remaining Africans be denied all food and drink rather than be thrown into the sea. The crew ignored this request. In total, 142 Africans were killed by the time the ship reached Jamaica. The account of the King’s Bench trial reports that one slave managed to climb back onto the ship.[
The horror of the Atlantic slave trade inflicted on humanity should never be forgotten. Let us resolve to know this history. To honor this history and to ensure that it will not happen again.
894 days ago, on June 16, 2016, I woke up and decided that I was not going to drink alcohol anymore. Nearly 23 years before I had gotten drunk for the first time a few days after I graduated from high school. Over the course of those years I did lots of regrettable things under the influence of booze, nothing that led to criminal charges or deep remorse, but enough to increasingly wonder why I was drinking.
I never found a middle ground with booze. I would drink to get drunk, nearly every time. I loved how my world would narrow, how funny everything was, how funny I was. I would get loud, smile a lot, talk a lot. Yet, I would usually say something to somebody that was inappropriate and didn’t reflect well on me.
In the spring of 2016, everything was ripe for me to quit drinking. I was in the middle of a personal renaissance, had started to practice meditation and mindfulness and was visiting with a shrink. In my head I made a mental pro/cons list of using booze. The cons outnumbered and outweighed the pros. Booze took away, on average, a weekend a month from me. Nursing a hangover I would be a useless partner and lazy father. Booze kept me up too late and wrecked my sleep patterns. Booze was expensive and it in a state with little public transportation and brutal winters put me in the ethically ambiguous border of drunk driving far too many times.
I read once that booze was a great servant and a terrible master. That is certainly true. If you have the stops that allow you to use responsibly then who am I to judge? I had no stops and it was an issue so I stopped. I’m shocked by how easy it has been for me. When somebody asks if I want a drink my stock answers is, “I’m good”. Nobody cares that I don’t drink, nobody. I’ve been at concerts where everyone around me is drinking and drugging, no worries, no pressure. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself what if alcohol is still your servant. Maybe not. Either way, know that it can be done.
The first time I went into the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone was in the winter of 1998-99. Despite the reintroduction of wolves in 1994, there were still huge herds of elk in the river bottom. I remember thousands and thousands of This past week the only elk in the Lamar Valley was a pile of dirty hide and red meat. The shapeless carcass was 150 yards off the road and we had heard that wolves were feeding on the lifeless mound. We were told to be there starting at pink sunset or before the blue dawn.
We arrived at 3, no sign of wolves. Other than the dozen bison on the North Ridge and a few black ravens in the trees dotted along the Lamar there was no sign of life anywhere. Clouds raced along to the south spitting snow. A few minutes of glassing around the valley revealed professional wildlife photographers on the ridge overlooking the carcass. They had spotting scopes the length of my arm and probably telephoto lenses equally as long.
Soon the wolves would appear, perhaps beginning with only one, circling, watching. By nightfall, the feast would begin. In a week the elk mound would be gone and another act of the Lamar Valley drama would begin.
Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.
Lady Bird JohnsonOne of the great joys of my life is to be set free in the University Library. These past two days I’ve been on the campus of the University of Montana, Missoula, Montana. The Maureen and Mike Mansfield library contain five stories of absolute bliss. Perhaps as the son of a career library employee, my heart is always in the hushed confines and stillness of the stacks.
A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.
As an undergraduate my most frequent place of refuge was the McConnell Library where I would spend hours in the stacks. Running my fingers over the spines of old books that had not been checked out in decades. I’d delight in biographies of long-forgotten Virginia Governors, the many volumes of lost cause Civil War History. Like a drunkard, I’d wander through the stacks knowing that a book that would draw me in for hours was waiting to be discovered. How many times did my suffering girlfriends have to wait for me because I’d lost any sense of time in the musty silent basements?
Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.
~Quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog, 1980 edition
It was in my senior year of undergrad that I was assigned a term paper for a class. I don’t remember the prompt or the topic. One day I had taken down a volume of bound New Yorker Magazines and came across a story about Ben Linder, an American who was killed fighting in Nicaragua during the 1980s Civil War. From there it was off to the New York Times Microfilm and slowly a paper came together.
The beauty of living in the stacks is to the right or left of the book you sought could be a related book that would lead you off on unanticipated and wonderful detours. It was an education that targeted Google searches will never give you. Will my children ever find the joy of a quiet library the way I did?
I went to high school in the suburbs of Washington, the District of Columbia. Though I was always near the seat of government, in a city of millions the chance to interact with political leaders was limited to state funerals, watching Marine One fly around, inaugurations and random motorcades.
Then I moved to Montana. In Montana, our leaders are in our leaders on the state and national level are highly accessible. You need to find out where they will be, go there and talk to them. Every year I spend a lot of time talking about the founding of the nation and the ideals of the Constitution especially. One of the things that I always think of when I teach James Madison’s Federalist Paper#10 is that he is really describing Montana. The ability for good leaders to start on the local level, the idea that small communities can play an important role in national policy are the picture of Montana politics. For good or bad we have Senators and Representatives, Governors and Commissioners who wield great power. That power is accessible. Go find it.
I was unfamiliar with Greg Brown before I moved to Montana. I quickly learned that if I was going to be able to chat with any woman who I was remotely interested in I’d best become familiar with his music. Like all good folk prophets, he has the shaky, gravel bar of a voice that evokes wisdom and timelessness.
About the time I was leaving Montana the first time, in the late fall of 1999. Brown released his album Covenant. I pretty much had that CD on repeat for about a year after I bought it. Middle-aged heartbreak and longing are what I heard, something my late 20s self-thought was pretty appropriate for me.
The song, Rexroth’s Daughter, is still a favorite. I suppose it has something to say about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. I didn’t then and still don’t know much about the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. Good art, good thoughts, good writing, good songs are vague enough to allow the audience to glean what they must and that certainly was true of this song.
“Coldest night of the winter working up my farewell In the middle of everything under no particular spell I am dreaming of the mountains where the children learn the stars Clouds roll in from nebraska dark chords on a big guitar My restlessness is long gone i would stand here like an old jack pine But I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter the friend of a friend of mine
I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me Are so daily naked for all the world to see That thunderstorm in michigan i never will forget We shook right with the thunder & with the pounding rain got wet Where did you turn when you turned from me with your arms across your chest I am looking for rexroth’s daughter i saw her in the great northwest
Would she have said it was the wrong time if I had found her then I don’t want too much a field across the road and a few good friends She used to come & see me but she was always there & gone Even the very longest love does not last too long She’d stand there in my doorway smoothing out her dress & say “this life is a thump-ripe melon-so sweet and such a mess”
I wanted to get to know you but you said you were shy I would have followed you anywhere but hello rolled into goodbye I just stood there watching as you walked along the fence Beware of them that look at you as an experience You’re back out on the highway with your poems of city heat & I’m looking for rexroth’s daughter here on my own side
The murderer who lived next door seemed like such a normal guy- If you try to follow what they shove at us you run out of tears to cry I heard a man speak quietly i listened for a while He spoke from his heart to my woe & then he bowed & smiled What is real but compassion as we move from birth to death I am looking for rexroth’s daughter & I’m running out of breath
Spring will come back i know it will & it will do its best So useful so endangered like a lion or a breast I think about my children when i look at any child’s face & pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace It’s so cold out there tonight so stormy i can hardly see & i’m looking for rexroth’s daughter & i guess i always will be”
Greg Brown, Rexroth’s Daughter
Good songs, good art has a message for every year of your life. Though I didn’t know it then the line “I think about my children when I look at any child’s face and pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace” breaks me down now, in a way that it never did so many years ago. Sure, add a marriage, add some kids, add the hills and valleys of life, the fear of the future world my kids will inherit. Time shifts worries. 19 years ago, I’d play this song on a cheap Japenese guitar, over and over again. How is that a line that can break me down now was a throw away twenty years ago?
Of course, the only thing that is constant is change. As much as I can I can’t slow down how fast they will grow, I can only hope that I’m present enough to be fully conscious of how beautiful this amazing grace is.
Thank you Greg Brown for brining me to my knees, then and now.
Tonight, during a trivia competition, I was reminded of the tremendous heritage and culture that makes Montana such a unique state.
In 2016, 67,222 Montana resident were recognized as being Native American in a state with a total population of 1,062,330.
Seven Federally recognized Tribes exist in Montana today
The Blackfeet Nation
The Chippewa Cree Tribe
The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes
The Crow Nation
Fort Belknap Indian Community (Assiniboine and Gros Ventre)
Fort Peck Indian Community (Assiniboine and Sioux)
The Northern Cheyenne
In addition to the seven Federally recognized tribes, The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe has only State of Montana recognition, and is a landless nation with most of the tribe residing in the Great Falls area.
Article Six of the United States Constitution states that the Constitution, the laws of the national congress and treaties are the supreme law of the land. For much of the nineteenth century American Goverment Policy was to sign treaties, ratified by the US Senate, with Native American Nations. Thus in many cases Tribal Law exisits on a reservation by reservation basis depending on what the treaty signed with the nation states. For instance the Flathead Reservation of The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes is governed by the 1855 Hellgate Treaty.
A friend gave me a copy of “Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” by Michael Finkel. This quick read is a narrative account of Christopher Knight’s 2o plus years of living in solitude near a central Maine lake. Knight lived within walking distance of hundreds of vacation cabins but camouflaged his camp so that no one, other than two people, saw him in 20 years.
I’ve spent the last three years getting increasingly serious about practicing my meditation. The thought of spending 20 years on what was essentially a silent retreat is certainly appealing. The tremendous insight and calm Knight exhibited after his capture certainly speaks to the meditative quality he experienced by himself. As a high school teacher, I recognized in Knight the agony of former students who presented as not able to find their place in the world. I feared that the end compulsory and structured environment of high school would create turmoil so deep that they would become unmoored.
One passage that I kept returning to involved the second time Knight was spotted by another human being. Three generations of ice fisherman (Grandfather, father, son) were post-holing through snowy woods when they spotted Knight. Immediately the grandfather yelled out that they would not report seeing him, though they knew who he was. In response, Knight bowed and non-verbally thanked them. The drama of this scene captivated me.
The book left me conflicted. Though personally envious of the blessing so many years of solitude gave Knight I was sympathetic to his many victims. Knight stole from unlocked or seasonally abandoned vacation cabins to steal his clothes, supplies, entertainment and most importantly food. The owners of these cabins suffered the anxiety of knowing somebody was out there, breaking into their homes. These thefts ultimately ended Knights hermit years when he was arrested mid burglary at a summer camp kitchen. It is one thing to escape from society and to live simply. But to turn to a life of petty crime in order to sustain yourself is unforgivable.
Clearly Knight had a tremendous well of willpower to stay hidden for two decades. He went into the woods a 19 year old kid and left a 40 year old man. Hard not to imagine elements of mental illness in his story. Solitude has been a component of man’s search for meaning since the dawn of time. Knight’s story fits somewhere in that narrative for good or bad.
Every summer my daughter leaves the state to attend camp for four weeks. Though her absence is intensely felt in our little family, I relish the opportunity to communicate with her through letters only. I find that I communicate things that I would never bring up verbally with her. I also know she is going to be in a distraction-free environment to reflect on what I’m trying to say.
The most rewarding part of this experience for me is when I show up to get her. The confident, rested, and glowing young girl who spent the previous month pushing herself personally and mentally is a favorite version of a person I adore.