A Little Green Man in Montana
This Journal entry is a little long, so I'll not be sharing any of my thoughts on the phenomena of bio-film, or how the invisible atoms which bind us together may or may not be out to kill. There is a little talk about faith, drugs, politics and racial bias here, but mostly, I'm jotting down the dailies. If you've read this far, I'm happy.
We entered Montana at the border crossing near Waterton Park in Canada. Only a few miles away, the romantic promise of Glacier National Park. Around us, there was still the haze and smoke of fires from British Columbia to California. We were undaunted and drove our little red house into the rapidly changing landscape of Northern Montana.
We had a couple of objectives in Montana; visit Glacier National Park, do some hiking in the area, and spend some time with our friend Nathan in Bozeman. As is often the case in the pursuit of our objectives, they represent more of a general idea than an actual plan.
Moments after crossing the border, I began to see warning signs, 'Watch For Cattle on Roadway”. These cautionary emblems, while somewhat depressing, triggered a response in my stomach. I suddenly remembered what America was all about! I had a hunch we were likely very close to some kind of big, crazy steakhouse...I wanted in!
I asked Tiff, 'If we see a steakhouse before we reach St. Mary's (our destination for that evening), would you want to stop and eat?'
Tiff is a vegetarian and is not crazy about the eating of cows. I'm not exactly 100% comfortable with it either. Frankly, every bite of beef for me is an outward expression of my own ability to compromise my moral ideals. Each time I hunger for these beautiful creatures, I embrace my own hypocrisy. With this embrace, I lend the warmth of my own my tacit approval to the cold and ceaseless suffering every creature we farm so brutally for food.
My ability to pile-on to the unforgivable suffering in the animal kingdom was greatly aided by the sudden appearance of “The Cattle Barron Supper Club”, in Babb, Montana (less than 30 miles from the Canadian border, and resting on the edge of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation). We pulled into the parking lot, and I could smell the unmistakable aroma of beef fat over fire.
I was expecting cowboy ranch culture to dominate the decor of this large, log cabin style building. However, the interior sensibilities were not done in the typical Western chic I anticipated. There was a large bar, complete with whiskey barrels converted into bar-stools, with a bar-top made of locally milled lumber. Those few elements were about the only elements in the place which struck me as overtly cowboyish. The remaining ornamentation in that not-insubstantial building was done in what I can only call, an impressively understated Blackfoot-Native style.
There was a large sculpture of a buffalo jump, which spilled out from a mural on the wall behind it. There was an enormous bison head, mounted on the wall. There were several other sculptures around, depicting other sacred animals. A variety of beautiful feather head-dresses were also on display.
The staff was made up entirely of locals who had been raised on the reservation. The ownership was also native. To me, the soundtrack playing softly to the percussive and constant sounds of cutlery, conversation, and steak munching, was perfect; a strange and subtle drum and flute music which seemed to meander through the dining room.
By far, the most impressive visual elements in the place, however, were the placemats. In front of each seating at the table were laminated sheets of 8x10 paper. Each placemat was different, and each carried some sort of message. We were seated at a 4-top table when the waitress removed the excess silverware, small plates, and glasses we would not be needing, she did not take the extra placemats. In my opinion, those things were the floor show.
I've always been a fan of the narrative history behind any old restaurant or cafe', but this was different. For sure, one of the placemats told the story of the restaurant itself, and laid out a timeline. However, the other three placemats were relating timelines and creation myths of a way-less upbeat nature.
The Placemat which struck me most was one which looked like an essay, with a small photo of a wilderness scene and a great mountain in the background. The essay began with a bit of a creation myth intro, relating the significance behind the tale of the Blackfoot people as told by the Beavers. These tales tethered the Blackfoot to his land and created a sense of belonging to the land, as opposed to being owners of it.
As the narrative continued, the creation stories began to follow a new arc, and point to the way of life a Blackfoot was meant to follow. The environment and the Blackfoot's place in it are still thematically important, but the tone begins to shift from creation narrative, to read more like an anthropologist’s senior thesis.
In order to fully appreciate just how incredible this placemat was to me, I took a photograph of the document for you to read at your leisure. To be sure, this is the only placemat I've ever seen which quoted a psychologist or used the words - “...individualistic organizational structures.”
Ultimately, I felt like the essay was getting across the message that a bunch of uninvited guests had shown up on land which had never before known an owner, parked all of their stuff wherever they wanted, and told the current inhabitants to either fuck-off or get with the program. The “program”, however, didn't jive with the previous thousands of years of cultural development in the current inhabitant's minds and had created a great deal of trouble.
Oh yeah...the steak was fantastic!
We camped outside of Glacier National park and the small town of St. Mary's that evening. A heavy smoke was hanging over what we could see of the park, but the sky above us was clear and the air crisp. We slept well, with a belly full of delicious hypocrisy, and a head full of the white man's treachery.
In the morning, I awoke to the sound of a truck heading up the hill where we were parked. We were just above the main highway and were parked on a bit of an overlook. The road we parked on stopped, right where we were parked, and we felt fairly certain we were not in anyone's way. Where the road stopped, a deep gulch began, so there was nowhere else to go. When the sound of this approaching truck reached me, I knew this vehicle was not heading our way with the intent of passing by. It was heading our way to interact with us.
I opened the rear curtain, still under the covers, and looked out to see an older blue Chevy truck being aggressively driven by a man with long dark hair spilling out from a worn old cowboy hat. The truck got incredibly close to our rear bumper, and I could see the man in the old hat was probably in his forties, with big white teeth. I could also tell, he was highly pissed off. I jumped down from our bed to put on pants and go speak with this very angry man, peaking out again to see him take out a small camera and photograph the back of the van.
I then realized we were doing the very thing the placemat had talked about. We were trespassing on land we did not own, without the permission of the current inhabitants. We were the privileged, white people, who availed themselves of someone else's property, without a care for the consequences.
I have to be honest here, I was incredibly disappointed to have had anything to do with upsetting someone who clearly looked like an Indian to me. We were in Blackfoot territory, and as such, all of the land around us was theirs. Finding a couple of sleeping whites, too cheap to rent some dirt from a local campground is, in hindsight, offensive.
I then thought about it a bit more. If this was a white guy approaching me in this way, I would be unlikely to feel so instantly apologetic. What if it was a black guy, or a Hispanic woman, or a Chinese person? Do my unconscious biases have that much sway over how I react to people?
Before I could get out of the van and offer my foolish explanations, the guy in the old Chevy slammed his truck into reverse and backed away from us. When he reached the highway, he sped off in a big- ass hurry!
Before I could waste any more time thinking about how weird a guy can act when his bias is in control of his actions, I moved our stuff around, and got us the hell off that overlook, before, as one might have said in another time and in another context, the cavalry arrived.
When we finally made it to the great Glacier National Park, the smoke in the air was getting thicker by the minute. We made breakfast in the park, and posted up on a beach on the shores of Lake St. Mary. It would have been an amazingly clear day, were it not for the smoke.
I strung up a hammock, and Tiff laid out a blanket for her to lay upon in the sun. She also laid out a blanket for Pelé to ignore completely, while he walked all over the blanket she had laid out for herself. In that hammock, I took the time to fully examine my bias towards the man I now assume to be an employee of the Blackfoot Nation, who had no choice but to encounter our giant red van on his way to work.
I have read a few books on native culture - “Savage Mind”, by Jamake Highwater, and “Black Elk Speaks”, by John G. Neihardt, among them. I do my best to be careful to not think in terms of the “noble savage”, and instead like to think of American Indians as human beings with whom I share a great deal in common. Mainly, we share the imperfect stamp of a creature who has a shit-load of choices to make, and a complicated machine (the human brain) with which to make those decisions.
If a white guy, or a black guy, or a Hispanic woman, or a Chinese person in his or her late-forties had approached my van in the same way as the native man had done, I would like to think I would have remained calm and kind, but underneath that gentile approach, my thoughts may well have been different depending on the skin color. I realized, I tend to care a great deal more about offending people with whom I do not share a similar skin color. This, I recognize, is an absurd notion.
Skin color is largely irrelevant to me in my daily life. I'm not aware of allowing or preventing any of my own behavior based on skin color. Yet, when I reflect on how I might react if a white person did something I found objectionable, versus how I might react if someone “not-white” were to do the same thing, I clearly have distinct feelings depending on the skin color of the person in question. As I search the land for a place to fit in, I am also searching through my personality for blind spots. I would like to send out a little prayer of gratitude to the Blackfoot Indian guy, with whom I did not have to awkwardly interact. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to recognize my own absurdity. And, may I react to all people, regardless of their skin color, with the kindness and patience I would have offered you or any other group I perceive as a “Minority”.
The park was crowded, full of smoke, and not an entirely pleasant place to be. Also, Pelé is not welcome in the National Parks, so we headed south to visit the Helena National Forrest. Full disclosure, we tried to visit “The Museum of the Plains Indian”, but arrived after it closed for the day. Instead, we stopped at a grocery store on the reservation, filled our little refrigerator with food, and bought some mildly-gaudy seat covers for the van at a locally owned gift shop.
We drove back roads from the northern border of Montana, all the way to a town called Choteau, where I met a guy who just pulled up to the side of the van while I was brushing my teeth and started talking. The guy was riding a bike, was in his eighties, and told me, within two minutes of meeting me, “Oh, it's all bullshit, you know?”
I really liked this guy. I'm fairly certain most people think he is a crazy person. Tiff, who really needed to pee, but didn't want to be rude to the guy, was a bit tired of him by the time we finally took our leave of him, about ten minutes later. I love little interactions like this. I honestly wanted to just turn on a tape recorder, and release it to our audience as an anonymous, man-on-the-street bit, but I didn't even have a moment to ask him. There was little time for my interjections between nonsequiturs, and him telling me, “yeah, I taught some CIA guys how to smoke jump, but they were assholes, and everything about it was basically bullshit!”
We eventually made it to the Helena National Forrest and drove through a town, I want to believe was named for a guy who's place in history, I have mentioned before, York, of the Corps of Discovery. I did not stop to verify this fact, so if you know this to be true about a small town called York, MT, feel free to drop me a line. If you know this to be false, please do not take this one from me, or York.
Not far from York, a dirt road, heavily pockmarked and full of sections which our van and driver do not like, began. We took this road for several miles to a dead-end, where a fantastic trail and mostly empty campground were waiting for us. The road itself winds around Trout Creek, and in-spite of feeling like driving on a large turd is exceptionally beautiful.
The road ends at Vigilante Campground, where for $8, we were able to spend the evening in a perfectly legal campsite, next to the delightful Trout Creek, and under our first clear, Montana night sky. We hiked that afternoon for about six miles along the creek, then deep into a narrow canyon which opened up to a small valley. We finished up our hike with a nude dip in the creek, only about 100 yards from our campsite. If you find yourself in that area, do yourself a favor, and get clean in those crisp and clear waters. Pelé agrees.
Our goal the following day was Bozeman, to visit our friend from Memphis, TN Nathan. Nathan moved to Bozeman with a job. He works for a company called FICO. Now, of all the things I discussed with Nathan – topics like religion, politics, relationships, consciousness, dogs, old friends, and fistfights – never at any point did I bring up my feelings about FICO. I still will not be bringing that up, mostly because I don't want to burn the calories it would take for my fingers to fully express my feelings about the algorithmic calculation of a person's worth. What I will express, though, is that Nathan is a fantastic human being, and the place where he earns a living (and the role he performs there) do not in any way influence my opinion of my friend.
So, we made it to Nathan's home, after spending some time at the beautiful Bozeman Public Library for me, and Tiffany surprising me with a wash for the van. We planned on spending a little time with Nathan, seeing the sights, taking a hike or two, and then heading on. Three days, maximum. Or so we thought. We would be in Bozeman for a total of six days. We are so glad we did.
That first evening, Nathan invited us into his home, introduced us to his incredible dog, Seamus, and made us feel right at home. He then took us to a Barbeque festival (of a sort), where we had some overpriced food that was “not bad”, and where we met his friends Skipp, Andrea, and their daughter Barit. We had fun, ate a bunch of food, I had to physically stop myself from taking a piss in a parking lot, not because I had had too much to drink (I don't drink), but because I may be going feral, and have become accustomed to being able to pull over on a trail or highway, and just piss whenever I feel like it. That doesn't fly in a polite city like Bozeman, MT.
After going to a few bars with Nathan, we decided to go back to his house and eat a little bit of some edible pot, given to us by a friend in Alaska who specializes in making “Little Green Men”. The “Little Green Men” are made by infusing coconut oil with THC, spreading the oil out in a sheet, about a quarter inch thick, freezing the sheet, then stamping it out in the shape of little gingerbread men...little ginger-bread men that will light you up like an old Christmas tree in a bonfire.
In other words, these little things are magnificently potent. To be clear, I don't feel stoned when I eat it. I feel high. Super high, in fact. I was not alone in this. Nathan also ate a little bit with me, and we ended up staying up until 3:30 AM. We started the discussion, when Tiffany was still awake, talking about Politics. The discussion, although Nathan, Tiffany and I are not all on exactly the same page politically speaking, was energetic, fun and not at all adversarial. When we drifted into the realm of whether or not there is a God, Tiffany politely drifted off to sleep in the van, while Nathan and I decided to dive in, head first. Fortunately for us, the “Little Green Men” reached maximum potency at just the right time.
Nathan and I have wildly divergent views on how we think about the universe. I won't go into a full recount or explain exactly where we diverge, but suffice it to say, I do not know if there is a God, or some divine, prime mover who gave the ball of existence it's initial push down-hill, and Nathan is a Christian. I do not actively believe in a God who knows and or loves me, and I do not subscribe to any organized religion. I simply don't know what the deal is. In the absence of evidence, faith is not an option for me. I am a tad bit envious of the faithful, honestly, as I can remember feeling quite comfortable believing in God before I began asking some difficult questions.
I have a tremendous respect for Nathan. I am not a traditional atheist, and I do not wish to cast any negative feelings in the direction of the faithful. If anything, I applaud faith. My mother and step-father are people of faith, and I admire that. The discussion Nathan and I shared was one of great mutual respect and wasn't the typical stoner conversation with excessive use of the words, “dude, you know, like, or it's just crazy, man”. Instead, we were exchanging ideas, listening to each other, and instead of trying to persuade the other, or tell the other he was wrong in some way, we were on a search for common understanding.
As you may have guessed, we did not solve the world's problems. We did, however briefly, manage to share a truly spirited and fun exploration of our beliefs, ideas, notions, and biases. I truly long for that to be the norm in all of my discussions with others, and to be the norm when it comes to the way we speak with each other as a species.
We managed, over the next few days with Nathan, to go to a hot yoga class, take a beautiful hike to Lava Lake, cook together, share laughs, and some really fun conversations. We are so incredibly grateful to have Nathan in our lives, and look forward to someday returning the hospitality!
One evening with Nathan, we ended up reconnecting with his friends, Skip, and Andrea. I had a great time chatting with Skip, who I found out was a music journalist, and I invited him to be a guest on the show. I so desperately respect real journalists and writers, I could not pass on the opportunity to speak with one. He accepted and was kind enough to feed me chili after our interview later that weekend. His episode will be out on September, 11.
Our friend Sally in Petaluma told us about a few friends of hers who live in Bozeman. Sally is an incredibly interesting woman who I failed to interview before we left California, so when she said she had friends we should meet, Tiff and I agreed we had to meet them. As I write this, sitting under the Tetons in a handcrafted little studio space in sunny and beautiful Moose, Wyoming on the property of friends of Sally's friends, I can not even begin to tell you just how fortunate we are to have a friend like Sally.
When she was in her twenties, and living in the Bay Area of California in the late 1960's, Sally and her husband decided, with a group of friends, to sail around the world. None of them knew anything about sailing, but with true ingenuity and determination, the little community of friends banded together, bought an old boat (which they named, The Topaz), dry-docked it, retooled the whole ship to suit their needs, and managed to sail it around the world for many years. I often think of Sally's tales from “The Voyage of The Topaz” anytime I'm tempted to think we are on some sort of grand adventure.
It was on “The Voyage of The Topaz” where Sally met the friends she would later introduce to Tiffany and me; Steve and Marylou. Steve and Marylou were living in American Samoa, working in a cannery when a ship full of young people sailed into port. At that time, very few young people were in American Samoa, so Steve and Marylou took the opportunity to go down to the docks and make new friends. Of all of the people on the boat, Sally, and her then-husband, Peter, were their favorites...they have remained friends.
Sally and Peter had invited Steve and Marylou to join them on the journey. They were, understandably, leery of joining some sort of floating commune, and declined. When the boat full of young people sailed out of port, Steve and Marylou (who have now been together for over 50 years) held hands and watched as this little sailing community left them on their little island. As soon as the boat was out of sight, the two of them reached the same conclusion at the same time. They ran to the nearest office, and sent a telegram to the occupants of the Topaz who were expected to land in Fiji in a few days which read, “WE WANT TO JOIN YOU!”
Steve and Marylou flew to Fiji, joined the crew of The Topaz, and sailed with them to New Zealand. Sally told us stories about Steve and Marylou, long before we ever thought meeting them would be a possibility.
Steve and Marylou, who have traveled all over the world, now live in Bozeman in an almost supernaturally charming home. Steve is a retired river guide, and Marylou was an educator. At one point in their lives, when their two girls were young, they moved to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica to open up an adventure guide company. The business was successful, and they eventually sold the business and moved back to Bozeman. Eventually, their daughters would join them.
We met them for breakfast at their home near downtown Bozeman and had a fantastic time. Steve made us some blueberry pancakes, from scratch, and we chatted the morning away. I asked if Steve and Marylou would be willing to be guests on the show, but Marylou understandably declined. Fortunately for us, when the conversation drifted to their kids, a small book was produced and Tiffany and I marveled at the paintings of their youngest daughter, Michelle. We also found out that Steve is an artist, so I asked if Steve would like to be a guest with his daughter Michelle.
Michelle arrived minutes later, with her gregarious little 15-month-old boy, and agreed to be on the show. That will be released on September, 18th.
We took a tour of Steve's Studio and fell in love with his wonderful paintings. When we made it to Michelle's home later that day to record the podcast, we were blown away by the scope, scale, and emotional response we experienced when sitting with her work.
The following day, we met up again with Steve and Marylou for a boat trip on the Yellowstone River. Steve has a beautiful wooden boat, called a dory. An inflatable craft was also in-tow, and Marylou took the first shift. Mercifully, the sun was out, the smoke was not present, and the air was as fresh and clear as any day I've ever known. The big skies of Montana were in full effect.
Pelé stood on the deck of that ship like an old pirate captain and menaced every flying insect which dared to cross his tiny chompers. The sun warmed us down to the individual cell. We stopped for a swim break and a picnic on a sandy bank and sat in the lap of the hills and mountains which surrounded us. That river trip will stick with me for the rest of my life, yet it is only one of the many things for which I will be forever grateful to Steve and Marylou.
Steve and I rode together in the boat for a while, as Tiffany and Marylou paddled together in the inflatable. As Steve and I discussed everything from travel and psychedelics, to education, business, politics, and religion, I was struck by the way he handled his boat.
The dory is not a small craft. There is room for at least four people, a couple of dogs and plenty of gear. While it would be ill-advised to travel that heavy, the boat at least had space for it. In this vessel, one would think maintaining control would require a great deal of effort. When piloted correctly, the amount of effort required to get down river, even a river with little rapids and rocky sections like the Yellowstone, is minimal. Watching Steve so effortlessly guide his boat into just the right space reminded me of watching the left hand of a skilled banjo player. Even as the notes fly out of the instrument, the hand looks as if it is hardly moving.
I would later in the day take my turn at paddling the small, inflatable kayak. I followed Steve through the lines he picked as he “read” the river. I found myself paddling backward, and using entirely too much effort to guide my little boat in any meaningful way. I have a long way to go before I figure out how to let the river do all the work.
When we got back to Steve and Marylou's home, Steve gave me the river shoes I had borrowed from him, and then gave me a book. The book is called “Stumbling Through Paradise”, and was written by Steve after selling his business in Costa Rica. I highly recommend this to anyone who either likes to laugh or has designs on opening any sort of business. It is also available on Amazon!
Of all the gifts and kindness Steve and Marylou shared with us, the opening of their Rolodex of good friends was, by far, the greatest.
On one of our last evenings in town, a friend of ours from New Orleans, Elizabeth, was planning on being in town with her dog, Cash. We met up for drinks and food, then spent a few hours chatting at Nathan's. Elizabeth is also on something of a journey of discovery. It was fantastic to see her and to see how her journey was working its magic on her worldview.
As I mentioned, we were in Bozeman for six days, having only planned on being there for three. When we finally decided we would absolutely leave, we stopped by the hot yoga class for one last incredibly deep sweat, got groceries, and headed to Yellowstone National Park.
We stopped in a little town called Livingston, Montana to get water and to take a little walk. If you are anywhere near Livingston, it is worth stopping. The streets are clean, charming, and full of bustling business and characters.
We made it to Yellowstone, where Pelé was only welcome to be anywhere cars could go and stopped for a soak in the Boiling River. The experience is mostly pleasant, as a cold river mixes with indecently hot water from the geothermal pools which are sitting on top of the giant caldera which will likely end civilization as we know it. Moments of pure delight are punctuated by moments of intense cold, followed by boiling heat. We were surrounded by rocky hills, fragrant sagebrush, and a couple of adult female Elk and several little ones.
That evening, we camped in the park (paying for an actual campsite), and hiked up to a small hill to look for animals and watch the sunset. We headed to bed early, as we planned on getting up at 4 AM to try to see a wolf pack which is often seen in a nearby valley.
At 4 AM, we got up, moved a few items, and headed off to see the wolves. As it turns out, a 4 AM wakeup call is unnecessary. We reached our destination in about an hour, and the sun would not be up for another hour still. When we did see the sun, we saw many vehicles headed away from where we had parked. Tiffany drove, and followed these vehicles to a large, sprawling part of the valley, where over a dozen cars were parked, and nearly two dozen people with large camera lenses and telescopes were standing and pointing.
We parked and walked up a small hill to join the group. Our binoculars were sufficient to pick out a few small moving objects, and one much larger slow moving bison. A delightful older woman who had parked next to us was kind enough to offer the use of her telescope. We saw about six of the eleven or twelve wolves which were hanging around, and making the large male bison only mildly agitated. We did not witness anything more than the mildest charge by the bison, and a light scampering of the two nearest wolves. Seeing their long tails, and their slick movements were powerful. We were glad to be so far from them.
When we returned to our little wolf descendant, Pelé somehow knew he would not be taking a hike with us, and stayed pretty mellow as we took a driving tour of the park. We saw moose, Elk, and a ton of hilariously obstinate bison. We saw thermal pools, hot springs, geysers (yes, Old Faithful), and loads of beautiful landscapes. Unfortunately, each of these was done without the company of our little friend who was patiently waiting for us in the van.
When we finally left the park, we had made arrangements to meet up with friends of Steve and Marylou; Amy and Lyle, in Moose, Wyoming. That is another story which I will save for next time.