Russ Ringsak

Thanksgiving in Montana

December 8, 2004

First off, we posted that last column just before the murders of six unarmed hunters in Wisconsin; four of them shot in the back. I thought about pulling the deer stories and then thought it isnít about this site and it would be presumptuous to mark an official reaction, however high-minded.

But I am hoping the case doesnít become another circus, in spite of efforts already in that direction. Itís not entertainment. Iím hoping to read nothing more about it than a small back-page article, months from now, that the killer has been sentenced and will never again see daylight.


But letís talk about driving out to Montana, something about which I have at least a smidgeon of understanding. We left on Tuesday afternoon, the 23rd; the landlady, myself, and a mutual friend, wife to a carpenter pal of ours, who needed a ride out west to her giant family Thanksgiving. From St Paul to Alexandria we were in thick but smooth traffic, like beer cheese soup. Most of us traffickers were on a mission. Turkey and all that. Pie. Adult beverages. Possible football.

Alexandria is 140 miles west of the cities, and from there the larger towns are seeded at hundred-mile intervals: Fargo, Jamestown, Bismarck, Dickinson, Glendive, click-click-click-click-click; from Glendive itís two hundred to Billings, a double click. Where the sky gets bigger they set the towns farther apart. In Minnesota, small towns were hatched at intervals of eight to ten miles, the halfway point between them being the farthest a dairy farmer would want to go to market; and about as far as most guys would want to go for a beer after work.

In Montana the land is bigger and the dirt is stretched thinner and canít support a town every eight miles, or theyíd end up with a city hall and a bar for every couple of ranches. So you sometimes see signs that say: ďNo Services Next 70 Miles.Ē Which is part of why we ride motorcycles out there every summer. Itís edgy. You donít know if that place 70 miles away is open or even still in business. You picture yourself stranded out there on the open prairie. And when you do get there and thereís a Conoco open it feels good just to hear the gas gurgle into the tank and the ticking of the meter. And the beer in that tavern a block away is cold and tastes remarkably good. Much better than the beer they ship to those soft city bars.

But of course we werenít on the back highways on motorcycles. We were on the superslab in my new car, Clyde the Hemi, smooth and fast and luxurious, and Clyde knows things my pickup never thought of, like compass points and temperature and Miles To Empty. He takes the edginess out of travel. Takes the edge off other things too, like getting older and facing another winter. We cruised to CDs — the womenís, not mine — their stuff is acoustic and sensitive and mine is electric and only sounds good loud — and early Wednesday afternoon we slipped into town and found a good part of her family at the exact saloon where we thought theyíd be.

We drank and ate as if we were rich and skinny, and as if the next day we wouldnít have to do it all over again. It was a good time and the family can tell the stories, big Alaskan stories, because theyíve worked the fishing boats up there and one of the sisters still captains her own boat. I had a small trucking story to tell but it lacked grandeur so I didnít.

But Iíll tell it here: Last week I drove behind a trucker who had gone to the trouble of having a professional painter write, in script, a riddle along the top of the back of his cab. It said: ďWhat Noise Annoys an Oyster?Ē I thought about that for a while and then raised this answer: A Noisy Noise Annoys an Oyster. You may not find this amusing, but if you have kids or grandkids and say it up to speed they might take to it. Variants are possible: A Noisy Nose Noise Annoys an Oyster. A Nasty Noisy Nose Noise —.

The next day, Thanksgiving, we two who werenít in the big family went to the fine high mountain home of a local working guy and his wife; she is from North Dakota and her dad and brother were there, so I was among my people. They live at the top of a steep driveway in a pine forest, a new house he built looking over the roof of the old family cabin. The view from their front windows is upward, between two high cliffs across the road, to a ten-thousand-foot peak beyond. Snow up there, all year around. On the side deck a Stellarís jay, a supersized blue jay in a distinguished iridescent blue-black tux, shouldered his way up to the bird feeder; he looked like a Secret Service agent at a formal ball. Inside we enjoyed apple martinis and a lavish big-bird feast similar to that of our countrymen, except ours was partnered with an outrageously good red wine. A leftover from a banquet of high rollers, courtesy of the brother, who told an interesting story around it. But Iím not passing it on.

We went back to the hotel and stayed on for the next night — more wretched excess at that bar — and packed up Saturday morning, with hangovers not nearly as bad as they should have been; maybe itís the mountain air. The interstate eases down from the continental divide at Butte and curves its way out of the mountains for 120 miles, until it crosses the Yellowstone River, and it rides that valley eastward for over 300 miles. In the first hundred miles from the crossing there are always mountains in sight; the Absarokes behind, the Crazies on the north and the Bear Tooths to the south. (Iím guessing here the collective Bear Tooth range would not be called the Bear Teeth.) At one stretch the freeway is flanked by a long wall of rock outcroppings rising along the right while the river glides along on your left, sometimes right beneath the road and sometimes miles off in the distance, the line of trees out there against the bluffs marking its sweep. You see distant antelope on the tan lowlands, along with horses, black or deep-rust cattle; and the occasional dust trail rising behind an unseen pickup.

The sky is big in Montana because of course it has to reach the horizon, which is usually a long ways off, sometimes disappearing
into a pale blue blur way out there where sky and land melt into one. At Billings the view of the Rockies is gone and the great wide not-quite-fenceless plain stretches off, up to Alberta and down to Texas, and you can almost feel them in the way the land reaches out in long striated waves, pulling from the split of the Yellowstone Valley. You rise and fall in the great swells, all in shades of tan and brown and deep green, and every trip you see something new, some vista that could be a grand painting on a high wall of the lobby of a lavish hotel in some faraway capitol.

I read that the southeast corner of Montana is closer to Texas than it is to the northwest corner of Montana, which seems hard to believe until you measure it on a map. At Glendive the river turns to the north so it can go south with the Missouri, and we will cross it again in about two hundred miles, at Bismarck.

The land begins a slow drop leaving the Rockies, an imperceptible slope, and then it seems to rise again one last time to meet the North Dakota border. Something in the vast openness of the eastern Montana prairie brings on dry humor; you come upon exits to Crackerbox Road, Whoopup Creek Road, and Bad Route Road. My favorite. Thereís a rest area there, rightly enough.

Frankly, Iím not real comfortable writing about Montana. I like it too much. I donít want to encourage folks to go there, unless they for sure donít stay. Itís okay the way it is, and some few things in the human experience need to be left alone. Colorado is where you should go if you want to be hip. Colorado is hip. Warmer, too, and with better shopping. If you like the mountains, Colorado is where you need to be. Montanaís okay, but itís full of armed militias; they have checkpoints. There are really big wolves there, too, who come in and eat family pets right in town. Right there in your back yard. Bears everywhere, so you need to watch the kids. Most of the trees have been cut down and the slopes are peppered with oil rigs and mine shafts. You are never out of sight of an oil rig.

And you are not considered a man unless you ride a bull at least twice. Two bulls, you have to ride. Brahmas. And you have to wear the belt buckle and drive the battered 4x4 gas hog pickup truck to prove it; and you should have a steel screw or a pin somewhere in a hip or thigh bone. And you need a big ugly bear dog riding in the back of the pickup. Or you will be pretty much shunned. Itís not a place where most folks would want to live. But itís okay to drive there if you stay on the main roads. And if you do go through, stop at the Owl Bar in Livingston. Itís dark in there and you might be taken for a local.


Anyway, speaking of riddles: A man is sent to the county jail and finds himself in a cell with a fellow who doesnít talk much. After a couple days the deputy comes and tells the cellmate he has a visitor, and takes him to the break room. They talk for a while and after the visitor leaves the man asks who he was. The cellmate says: ďBrothers and sisters have I none; but that manís father is my fatherís son.Ē

If you donít feel like mumbling your way through figuring out who he is, the e-mail address is: No self-addressed envelope necessary.

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