Archive for the ‘Montana’ Category

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books. New York. 2015. 453 pp.

51S9z5jS6mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last Bus to Wisdom is the last novel Ivan Doig completed before he died in April, 2015. Losing him is a great bereavement for any reader who loves the West as much as he did. I count myself a “Doigie”—someone who has always welcomed his latest cast of characters into my life. To know that there will be no more is a great personal loss. Still, there is always the reacquainting that comes with re-reading great writing. There is always something new to discover.

This book is about a red-haired 11 year old, much like Doig himself at 11 must have been. Thrust off his beloved Montana ranch in summer of 1951 Donal is sent to live with an unknown great-aunt in Wisconsin while his grandma/guardian recouperates from an operation for “lady problems”. His adventures begin on the dog bus aka the Greyhound that carries him from Great Falls to Manitowoc. Where the excitement continues and grows once his aunt sets him adrift again a few weeks later when she discovers that, even though Donal has the makings of a card-sharking canasta player, she can’t deal with his, well, boyness. More excitement ensues as Herman the German, his great-aunt’s sort-of husband, decides to join him, lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn so famously described his heading out with Jim. There are obviously many more similarities between Donal and Huck offered by Doig in this marvelous tale of a boy, whose childhood will soon be behind him.

It is always Ivan Doig’s writing, his understanding of people and dialog, that drive his stories and make his often over-the-top characters perfectly acceptable. To me in this book it seemed that Doig, anticipating that this might be his last, threw in all the nuance and sly observations he’d garnered over the years, yet hadn’t had a chance to use before. So we’ve got canasta, radio soaps, cowboy and hobo lingo, wicker suitcases and sailor’s duffel bags, ties adorned with suggestive mermaids, countries made from toast, autograph books, arrowheads, bronc riders, even Jack Kerouac is featured in a cameo role! It felt like nothing was held back. And that is all to the good. It’s a book that speeds ahead at dog-bus-on-empty-highway speeds but never loses one thread, never misspeaks with accents or syntax. It is a joy to read.

I have seen in more than one place the mention of Doig as the next Wallace Stegner. I don’t know…Stegner always, it seems to me, needs to make a point. Doig is first and foremost there to tell stories of another, quieter time about how normal people make their way. It’s often zany and just a little bit pushing the envelope toward tall-tale-telling, but that’s a great gift he has given over and over.

And I, like millions of others, have always been more than happy to raptly listen.

Read Full Post »

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. Bryce Andrews. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster. New York. 2014. 238 pp.

A short, powerful memoir, Badluck Way chronicles a year in the life of a Seattle-born lover of Montana who follows his heart to a huge conservation-oriented cattle ranch in the state’s Madison Valley.617XgEfo2oL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

With an unflinching eye, Andrews recounts his own struggles to harmonize his environmental ethic with the raw demands of protecting huge herds of heifers and steers as they grow on the ranch’s range. Especially difficult is trying to deal with the predations of a resident wolf pack. One the one hand Andrews is awed and humbled when confronted with the wolves’ unabashed wildness in situ while on the other hand, he finds himself growing ever more antagonistic as the wolves begin pick off his charges with apparent impunity.
The explosive crisis which he describes in all its conflicting emotions and necessities becomes a nerve-wracking. soul-searching window into all humanity’s muddied waters of pure vs. situational ethics and what that means for all of us environmentalists as we try to place ourselves in the all too real non-human world.

His descriptions of the Sun Ranch’s lonesome and brutal landscape are often achingly moving. I’m not so sure about his use of the occasional chapter written ostensibly from the wolf’s point-of-view. I see what he wants to do and probably even why: It does a great job of dialing back the emotional level while providing helpful information. But even as he makes the point that wolves don’t see the world as we do, he raises the question “how does he know?” and illustrates some of the pitfalls of trying ever to get into another’s head, and complicated by the fact that it’s a non-human’s psychology he’s exploring.

Overall the book is thought-provoking and extremely well written. And I can only admire his candor about his own conundrums and the impossibility of bringing his conflicting values together into a philosophical whole. Rarely are authors so honest with themselves or their readers.

Read Full Post »

Just Askin" thanks to Daily Kow

Just Askin”
thanks to Daily Kos

Here’s a Voter Lookup Site:

Read Full Post »

This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

Read Full Post »

Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”




Read Full Post »

I scooped up Ivan Doig’s latest, Sweet Thunder, as soon as I discovered it had come out in late summer. It is part three of the saga of Morrie Morgan who readers follow as he cuts a swath across the Montana plains. Part charmer, part encyclopedia, part big city con artist escaped to the frontier, Morrie Morgan (aka Morgan Llewellyn) is a lovable rascal, not above stretching the law even as he wins the hearts of his K-8 ranch kid students, his landlady, a motley band of union copper miners, a librarian with a past, and his readers. This is not the real-life story of a Western legend, but it sure feels like it should be.

Doig_WS_5.inddIn The Whistling Season, we first meet Morrie in 1909, as he alights from the train near Marias Coulee, a tiny Montana hamlet, with his deceased brother’s wife Rose. The plot begins, immediately thickening, as Rose introduces Morrie as her brother (a convenient switch from in-law) to the widower Milliron and his three sons who have hired her as housekeeper. The headline of her newspaper advertisement—“Can’t cook but doesn’t bite.” (wordsmith Morrie’s idea)—had caught their collective eye.  Morrie ends up teaching for the year in the one room schoolhouse, where he changes most every student’s life.

7167918In the next book, Work Song, we catch up with Morrie again in 1919. This time he’s getting off the train in Butte, MT having spent the intervening ten years in Tasmania. In Butte, he intends to make his fortune in the copper mines. Instead he becomes a “crier”, a representative of the mortuary at funerals (particularly Irish ones) who offers consolation to the mourners  while over-imbibing their moonshine. After too many mornings after, Morrie quickly graduates to general factotum to Sandy Sandison, the town’s remarkable librarian and donor to the library of many of its fine first editions. In Morrie’s ever expanding role (including cooking the library’s books), he takes up with his landlady Grace and becomes deeply involved in the miners’ union as it resists attempts to undermine it by the International Workers of the World (IWW) while at the same time trying to throw off Anaconda’s “copper collar.”

In this latest book Sweet Thunder, it’s 1920 and Morrie is again disembarking from the train at the Butte station, this time with his bride. They’ve returned to take possession of a grand “gift”, Sandison’s Butte mansion, complete with Sandison, now a tenant. Morrie is pressed into service as the editorial writer for The Thunder, a brand new union newspaper which gives voice to the miners’ opposition to the copper company.17707627

A recurring cast of memorable characters comes and goes through the books. There’s Rabrab (most of the name Barbara—backwards), who first appears as a sixth grade student in The Whistling Season, only to reappear as Butte’s sixth grade teacher and fiancee of union leader Jared Evans. Sandy Sandison casts his giant shadow: “Samuel Sandison himself was nearly geographic, the great sloping body ascending from an avalanche of midriff to a snowy summit of beard and cowlick.” Paul Milliron, the eldest son and narrator in The Whistling Season, continues to be referred to, as does Rose, in the next two books. Grace, retired Welsh miners Griff and Hoop, and street waif Russian Famine occupy important roles in books two and three.

The continuing saga is worthy of reading solely for its own sake. Its twists and turns, its sly tricks and not-quite-legal escapades, set against the rough and ready Montana ranch land and mining city makes for page-turning excitement.

But it is really the writing that makes these books unforgettable. Doig has an exceptional sense of language, from rough Welsh dialect to graceful descriptions of the stark landscape of the high plains to the “Richest Hill on Earth”, that industrial anthill which was Butte. “Here I was once more in that western territory at the very edge of the map of imagination.”

I must confess at the beginning of Sweet Thunder I got annoyed with his frequent description of Grace’s hair as flaxen. But then it struck me. Of course!—this is exactly the right choice of word. It’s the flaxen hair of melodrama, here presented at its finest hour. Heroes, villains, scamps, big business money makers, goons, bootleggers, gamblers, even Halley’s comet and the 1919 World Series make cameo appearances.

These are wonderful stories from a master storyteller about the early twentieth century West. I can only hope Doig’s got Book Four in the works.

Here are some of my favorite quotes: 

“When needed at the desk, I happily stepped into that role of librarian as bartender of information.”


‘Giorgio is taking us to the matinee of the Eytalian opera company that’s in town….

Polly-athcy, they’re, doing,’ Hoop chimed in. ‘Something about a clown who bawls a lot. Should be better than it sounds.’ ”


“Sandison held up a stopping hand. Casting his eyes to the heavens, he intoned, ‘God of fools, here is a newspaperman with an opportunity to ride with the men who made Theodore Roosevelt president of the United States, and he’s scared of a little thing like climbing on a horse. Take him now, his work on earth is done.’ “    


 “Those who mine are all one race,  Born and bred ‘neath a tunnel brace; 

Down there deep we’re all one kind,  All one blood, all of one mind. 

                      I back you and you back me,  All one song in unity.”                                                                                                                          


The Books Reviewed:

The Whistling Season. Harvest Books. New York. paperback 2007. 345 pp. (originally published 2006.)

Work Song. Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group, USA. New York. 2010. 275 pp.

Sweet Thunder. Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group, USA. New York. 2013. 305 pp.

ps: Please visit Ivan Doig’s website: www.ivandoig.com. It’s about the most wonderful author’s site I’ve ever seen.

Read Full Post »

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery ended their 4000 mile expedition with a huge welcome back by the citizens of St. Louis on September 23, 1806. Members of the Expedition were rewarded with land and double pay and most went off to seek their fortunes as farmers, fur trappers, adventurers or soldiers. One, Sergeant Patrick Goss, lived to be 99. Another, Private George Shannon, became US Attorney for the District of Missouri from 1830 – 1834.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was appointed Governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana in March 1807 but didn’t take up the appointment for over a year. He also was in charge of writing up the results of the Expedition. After incurring debts related to the Expedition’s winding down which the new President James Madison declined to pay (Thomas Jefferson, the original commissioner and ardent supporter of the Expedition had also been a close personal friend of Lewis and had never had qualms about its cost), Lewis set off to Washington DC to plead his case in person. He had, it appears, become severely depressed. Along the way, in Tennessee, he likely committed suicide, although there are a few who hold the theory that he was robbed (he had only 35¢ when he was found) and murdered.

William Clark

William Clark

Clark was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Territory of Upper Louisiana, a post in which he continued even after he was designated governor of the Missouri Territory, a position he held from 1813 until 1820. He also picked up the journal preparation upon Lewis’ death. The journals were published in 1814, ten years after the Expedition began. Clark also kept records of the fates of the members of Corps of Discovery. Perhaps most interesting was what happened to the Shoshone woman guide Sacagawea who most feel died in 1812. Clark adopted her two children—the boy Popey, who he had befriended on the expedition, and his sister. Clark died in 1838 at the age of 68.

de Anza

de Anza

And what of de Anza and his 1776 Expedition? Many of the soldiers and civilians in his 240 person entourage went on to their final destination, the founding of San Francisco. Most prominent was his second in command, Jose Joaquin Moraga who led the settlers as they built the first structures at the new presidio site. By September, 1776 Spanish dreams of a port on the Bay were a reality. Many of the original settlers (many Basque like de Anza) remained in San Francisco forming the core of the new city; their names are listed prominently by the San Francisco Genealogical Society. (http://www.sfgenealogy.com/spanish/anzaexp.htm)

de Anza

de Anza

De Anza returned to the Southwest where he was appointed Governor of New Mexico. In 1779 he launched a successful campaign against the Comanche who had been terrorizing the area for decades. In 1786 the Comanche signed a treaty with de Anza which brought peace to the area for over 30 years. This treaty allowed the safe colonization of the Chama and Pecos Valleys. de Anza retired in 1787 and died the following year in Sonora.

So the final question: Who had more lasting impact, the Explorers—Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, or the Pioneers—de Anza and his settlers? If the decision is based on standard history texts (at least where I grew up) the answer is obvious: Lewis and Clark. I remember no mention whatsoever of de Anza, or even, in fact, much at all about the Spanish and their profound influence and contributions to “discovering” and settling in the West.

Lewis and Clark at Great Falls, MT courtesy of Jim Carson

Lewis and Clark at Great Falls, MT courtesy of Jim Carson

At least my daughter’s Santa Fe high school experience included a year of New Mexico history so she was exposed to de Anza’s importance there. And although I wonder how many notice, the place names, old families, even the regional lingo serve as a constant reminder of the Spanish influence in the Southwest and California. And the generations of descendants of de Anza’s expedition who remain (Moraga, Alviso, Peralta, Mesa, Pacheco, Sanchez, and Castro among them) serve as reminders of how San Francisco began.

de Anza Expedition

de Anza Expedition

Read Full Post »

Lewis and Clark Icon

Earlier this month we were in Great Falls, Montana. A slightly scruffy prairie town, one of its major attractions (for us anyway) is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretative Center, a sprawling, multi-level complex administered by the US Forest Service and staffed by an army of very informative docent volunteers. Exhibits tell the story of the intrepid explorers and their 44 member “Corps of Discovery”, from their May 14, 1804 departure, as they undertook their arduous 4,134 mile journey up the Missouri, across the Rockies and ultimately down the Columbia to its mouth. There at the Pacific, their 18-month-long journey ended and they constructed Fort Clatsop, where they wintered over. The following spring, in 1806, the group returned, and on September 23, 1806, 28 months of exploring later, they reached their original starting point on the Missouri.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark had fulfilled the 1803 goal President Thomas Jefferson had set out for them after finalizing the Louisiana Purchase: “to explore the Missouri river and such principal streams of it as by it’s (sic) course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.”

Brant Duck from the Journals Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Sociey

Brant Duck from the Journals
Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Sociey

White Salmon Trout from the Journals courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

White Salmon Trout from the Journals
Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

While their expedition found there was no direction river connection from the Missouri to the Pacific, it did yield spectacular results: copious maps, charts, samples, specimens, and notes on minerals and natural history (they identified 178 previously unknown plants and 134 birds). With only one exception, they had peaceful encounters with a variety of Indian tribes, including the Lemhi Shoshone, the tribe to whom their Native guide, Sacagawea belonged. Only one Corps member died, probably of a ruptured appendix. As Gary Moulton editor of The Lewis and Clark Journals: An American Epic of Discovery notes: “The Lewis and Clark expedition is the most universally known event of American exploration and discovery.”

True. All of us learned about Lewis and Clark and their trusty woman guide Sacagawea in elementary school history.

But here in the Southwest there is another long history of exploration—those expeditions originating in Spanish Mexico. (to be continued)

Read Full Post »

After our Amtrak eastbound, seven hours late, 26 hour total coach trip (think steerage) we decided to change our return reservations to  “roomette.” No matter how much it cost. At least it sounded restful.

Shelby Ice Cream Stop © AME

Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder pulled into the Shelby MT station around 7:30 pm, a mere two hours late.

Empire Builder Arrives in Shelby © AME

In contrast to our coach experience, we were greeted by a helpful and friendly porter, Patricia, who escorted us to our very own private, albeit very tiny, space. Two seats faced each other with a drop-down-from-the-roof bunk lashed to the ceiling above. The door slid shut. Ta-da! private room!

Two trains make up the eastbound Empire Builder. One originates in Seattle, the other in Portland. They connect in Spokane for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. Westbound is the reverse. One of Amtrak’s selling points for choosing sleepers over coach is that meals are included. But because the dining car is attached to the Seattle train, heading east dining isn’t a white table cloth affair: we heard dinner had come in a plastic box. But westbound, the dining car was six cars ahead. Dinner was served!

The menus arrived. “Choose anything!” the waitress encouraged. I went for the “Signature Steak.” Not only was it excellent (it came rare), it ended with a flourish the few days I’d spent as a vegetarian in Canada. I even had cheesecake for dessert.

Yes, Amtrak does serve a delicious dinner.

In Our Roomette © AME

Later, Pat came to prepare our room for sleeping. With the door closed and the beds made, our roomette now offered exactly one standing-room-only space. No turning allowed. I drew the top bunk: Only a few inches from the ceiling I could not sit upright. A “seat belt” hooked to the roof, presumably to protect restless sleepers from falling out. Midnight or so, I needed to get up. It required some finesse. First I jiggled free the safety belt and then crouching, with legs dangling over the side, I hunted with my foot in the darkness for the ladder’s first step, many inches below. Although I effected a safe dismount, the adventure left me wondering just how many other passengers over the age of 12 had ever ventured into the upper bunk.

Still that night I caught a glimpse of the bygone romance I had imagined. No whispering silk down the passageway, no muffled screams, no Poirot….just being lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the Empire Builder hurtling through the velvet night.

Read Full Post »

“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »