Seventy two mornings waking up in the schoolhouse. Each of them with a variation of light. Today the clouds are a Dutch painting, ranging gray to white in each single puff and the blue of the sky flirting in and out, all complimenting the green fields below. Perhaps, last night’s rain has cleared the air and brightened the colors to this affect. There is argument among those of cloud appreciation and even within meteorological circles as to the accuracy and truth of clouds painted by Jacob Van Ruisdael and his contemporaries. But here it is out my window in Montana. Six degree’s difference in latitude, Haarlem to Harlowton and worlds away in climate yet... I think of Dutch Landscapes when I am here, especially on a day like today. Is it the Golden Age Landscape painter’s choice to make compositions with 2/3 sky? Which matches our reality in this big sky country. This is my last morning to sit on the bed with six beautiful windows looking out. I will carry this view with me for close to 300 other days of the year.
Richard drove us to the mountains. There was something about going to a sheep camp, but no one had really had time to talk about it. He and Alicia and the dog fussed at each other, everyone basically asking how much further… how much further. But John and I were in the passenger seats and in no hurry. We had given over the day to this annual picnic and didn’t care how long it took to get where ever we were going. We drove 11 miles off of the Kings Hill Highway, down Divide Road passing parks that Richard knew before we reached them: O’Brien Creek, Moose Park, Lone Tree Park, and finally Harley Park.
A vast expanse of prairie grass is surrounded by pines and firs, with a marshy nearly-dry stream winding through. Richard kept looking for a picnic site with water, but of course we didn’t need water. I think maybe the search was a hold out form his sheep days when he and his father and brother ran bands of sheep along Divide Road from park to park. He conceded to a spot near an old fire circle on the edge of the park. We spread out a blanket and with chips and beverages settled around the blackened stones that held only the memory of a fire. This had been the destination for the sheep and Richard began recounting his sheep years. He was cook for the sheep tender. They camped in different locations, the tender with his teepee out amongst the sheep and Richard with his tent and cooking outfit in amongst the trees at the edge of the park, maybe near where we were sitting. He described the sound of the sheep foraging close the trees in the evening, not in a nostalgic way so much as with love…. love for a time connected so closely to place and the sounds that make up a quiet that has nothing to do with lack of noise. Richard continued to talk. He described the ranching life that came after the sheep and working with his father. He admitted to his ranch's near collapse, and marveled at its rebuild. He misted for a moment, as Richard can do, when he remembered a time when he had no hope for the happiness he has now. At that point the stories where over, except that they are never over once you've told them.
Eben Goff and his friend Gwynell were here overnight. We ate and talked into the night. Eben was interested in the building, school by nature, now studios and home. Last night he called it strange, but after sleeping and waking up to the light of this place, he recognized the lateral-ness of the building, its horizontal planes and the way the slightly elevated height of the main floor takes in light expansively, especially the sideways light of morning. That is why I am here, I told him. Stegner talked of climate and geography conditioning us. I agree, but perhaps there is a predilection for a certain type of environment that we are ready to be conditioned by. This is what I keep asking myself here.
After the family left, we sat by the fire under a growing moon, listening to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. There is plenty of romance in Grey’s novels, the romance of men and women, of hero’s and villains, and of earth and the heavens. But there is also romance in our lives: between John and I, and in a fire under a Montana sky.
We listened and recognized the stories that have fueled motion picture westerns and we also recognized in ourselves the lingering American desire for bravery, endurance, stoical indifference to pain and hardship, recklessness, contempt for law and a hawk-like need for freedom. It is a combination that fuels both commendable and contemptible behavior. As Stegner said, America is still a “flawed glory and an exhilarating task.
Deep in the night when the Perseids were at their peak, John whispered “The stars are falling.” I could not rouse myself, but I turned toward the window, perhaps hoping that the magic might penetrate my sleep if only I faced it. I did get up later and leaned on the window ledge for a minute. Two meteors streaked through the sky and I fell back into bed. In the morning we agreed that if we woke that night we would go outside. At 3am I checked the windows in every direction. The day’s cloud cover was gone as predicted and stars pierced the dense black. I watched to the north until I saw the dash of a meteor and woke John. We stumbled through the dark house out onto our front porch and lay back in lawn chairs cocooned in quilts and looked for meteors in a field of stars. They came again and again, some leaving tails, some not. It is both a reassurance and a bewilderment to look into the night sky. The multitudes of stars and the vastness of space are hard to comprehend. At the same time, family and friends spread across this country look out to the same dependable constellations, the occasional phenomena, and the milky-way holding us all.
It was a slow drive after sunset as we scanned the ditches for deer or any animal that might unexpectedly pop up in front of the car. We settled into quietly singing along with the CD’s playing on the car deck. It kept us awake and alert without the distraction of conversation. More than half way home, the turn-off to Martinsdale loomed up quickly from the dark and John turned without signaling. People don’t use their turn-indicators much here. I have signaled just just for fun when turning from one lonely gravel road to another. But last night in the deeply black high plains, driving slow and trying to stay clear of the deer and the ditches, suddenly the flashing red and blue appeared in the side mirror. I turned to John and said “I think we are being pulled over.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and guessed we were. There is no shoulder on Highway 294, so John stopped in the road and became more of a hazard than the deer or lack of signals. But we complied with the officer’s requests and questions without fear. Besides having nothing to conceal we don’t fit stereotypes for trouble. We are white and middle-class and older. The officer was very young, but respectful, though dressed for war. The lights, the uniform, and the guns were more of a strange apparition than a threat or a comfort.
We made our way through Bridger pass, the high range to the west backlit by a usual and yet impossible sunset. I snapped photos from the car and even stopped to get out for a better view, but the rectangles gathered by my camera were a disappointment. The mountain silhouettes still had definition to their faces, but of a completely different color pallet and value than what was going on behind them. The clouds started intensely white with burned out hot spots and mottled glowing yellow edges. The pinks came on as the cloud formations changed to layered striations and the peaks sawed up and down as we continued to drive. We stopped for a minute at a campground and when we emerged from the trees it was clear that the show was over. We drove on quietly in the collecting dark, remembering the color and light. Now I find these words are about as useless as the photos to convey the view.
It is August, I am 63 years old and I can feel the season beginning to change. The dryness is more profound, but everything is beautiful. The wind rings through the playground. Small blackbirds call a chuck-chuck in the chokecherries. There are cranes in the field that has been cut, bailed, and is growing again. Sandhill crane pairs stay together, sometimes wandering apart for a time, but nearly always in proximity to each other. John and I are the same. Not everyone understands, but it is all we’ve known since we were eighteen years old and we have never desired anything else. I know a few women who have lost their longtime partners. I’ve watched them finding a new way… surviving. But I cannot fathom it. I guess it is the cost of having such a partner. I wonder what the cranes do when one of the pair dies.
August arrived with wind, air rushing past and through and around. It has unsettled the dreams of the household and inspired unexpected projects: gutting the old kitchen, flying flags in 40 mph gusts, hanging upside down on the jungle gym in fancy dress, and befriending stray cats. I have seen birds lose traction and fly backwards and I have wondered if I was doing the same, but I don’t think this turbulence is directional.
I read Stegner all day yesterday… his elementary history of American in the essay The Twilight of Self Reliance. It is suited for me as I don't think I never got a good American History education, or perhaps I was just not paying attention. I do remember being assigned to read a thin book on the civil war in 7th grade when my Mom took me out of school for a six-week European tour. Reading was not easy for me, but more than that I struggled to find relevance. I have a lasting impression of standing in a room in a medieval castle. The dark wood beams and heavy stonework overwhelmed me with their longevity. There was history written on the ceiling in accumulated smoke, and in stains from the upstairs privy running down the exterior wall. This was centuries old, unlike the civil war…
Was it the uninspired writing or my difficulty with reading the tiny volume, that made American history pale in comparison to castles in Europe? Or, more likely, was it the power of a first encounter with the magnitude of physical history? What was a century or two documented in a book compared to hundreds and hundreds of years scribed into a building? Mercifully for me, a young person who already could read spaces better than words, the castle was not littered with explanatory wall text or auditory guides shouting from headphones. I was reading the real signs written in stones and beams and the air they held. It is true that I had not yet caught the bug of my own history, the story of Western expansion that my family took part in. That was another 40 or 50 years in coming and also inspired by place, living here in Two Dot surrounded by the terrain of my grandparent’s early marraige.