Jogging Through the Smithsonian
September 8, 2005
It seems a long time ago that we took the trip to Montana, the telling of it now set against the Gulf Coast catastrophe and the long-dreaded ruination of our favorite city. They had escaped disaster so many times that one never, in that company, would speculate about bursting levees, especially when you were sitting in the shadow of one. Now that the nightmare is upon us, even at this distance we shake our heads in sadness and bewilderment, the scope of it too large to figure. What would this country be without New Orleans? Some of that unforgiving water flowed serenely by here not that long ago, little knowing or caring that it was on its way to help bring about death and disaster.
So. Irrelevant as it now seems, I said I'd finish this little vacation ride story and I will: We arrived in Livingston Montana on Friday, August 5th. Our pace underwent a big change that night and by Saturday morning most of us were either dead stationary or third-degree sluggish. We did get moving in the afternoon and four of us went out to the county fairgrounds to the horse show; it could have been boring but I was with horse people, who watch an animal for minute and then give you a believable read on what the beast is thinking: “That bay, number three-sixty, he just plain doesn't like that red roan there; watch him next time they come around. See that?” It was sunny out there at the rodeo grounds, not too dusty, but the grandstands and sheds were nearly empty; the natural result of a new and noxious policy, said the locals, which no longer allowed a carnival at the fair. Too risky. Insurance had become too expensive. So the threat of big-time lawyers hangs even over Montana nowadays; the new danger on the high plains is the sue rather than the Sioux.
That night I hung out with John Fryer, owner of the Sax & Fryer bookstore, a cowboy from the old days and a great teller of stories.
We toured the local spots for live music, spending most of the time at the Sport Next Door an addition to the well-preserved old Sports place where a hard-driving power trio called the Escalators did tough rock and blues in the vein of ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Allman Brothers. Nothing new since the time of that glorious ascendancy has caught my ear, but these two young brothers and their, um, mature, drummer did that old stuff in a most righteous manner.
We danced a few with various babes all of them playfully knowing they were too young and too good for us and then stood on the sidewalk in front of the place, enjoying the music and the great summer night air. Around midnight four young guys walked by and wrecked a white Ford Ranger sitting parked at the curb in front of an adjoining art gallery. One guy began by climbing quickly up on the roof of the cab and jumping on it until it caved, and then hopping down on the hood where he did the same thing. The others kicked in the doors, the rear quarter panels and front fenders, effectively totaling the little pickup in a couple of minutes with nothing more than the sneakers on their feet. And without saying much. No hooting or hollering.
We marveled at this, not only at the speed and efficiency of it but also at the apparent spontaneity, as if it just popped into their collective evil little brain to wreck somebody's truck. Somebody they knew? I speculated there might be a woman at the bottom of it a young love feud, a revenge demolition but after asking a few questions we found out it was owned by two of the perpetrators, brothers, and no one would offer anything by way of a motive. “Those guys owned it, but why they did it, I dunno.” Insurance, maybe? “I dunno.” Just another bit of wackiness on another good night out, something that seems easy to find in that town.
It may have been a foreshadowing of Sunday afternoon's entertainment, when a group of us went to the Demolition Derby at the same rodeo arena where we'd seen the horse show. It had been a long time since I'd been to one and it’s now been elevated to a huge spectacle with the television Monster Truck Bash and all that; pickup trucks so tall you have to climb a ladder to get in, with a fire-breathing two-thousand horsepower under the hood and tires the size of small Ferris wheels. Except this wasn't like that. This was the exact same thing it was when I was a kid, twenty-five-year old sedans with their doors welded shut. It was a hot day and the stands were packed. We ended up sitting on the steps at the east end of the bleachers. A fire truck came out after the warm-up heats and a young guy sitting on the hood hosed down the dirt field and then, responding to shouts and waves from the kids down front, sprayed them as well. Enthusiasm built for the idea and he was soon dousing deeper into the crowd. A lot of laughing going on.
And then, like Brahma bulls, the cars came bombing through the swinging wooden gates for the main event, one at a time, roaring up to face the crowd in a line, nine of them, one a woman. Last car running would win five hundred dollars. The gladiators climbed out through the opening for the passenger’s windshield the drivers windshields were welded wire screen or steel mesh and stood on the car or beside it while an auctioneer held a side bet Calcutta for the crowd. The bidding started at fifty dollars and went up from there, the top car valued close to three hundred. They were grizzled vets all, the long-faded former prides of families hard to picture them once on showroom floors no glass, no door handles seven sedans and two station wagons. Most sported bright colors for their last trip; rough-painted graphics touted places like Herranen Construction, First Impressions Salon, Thiry Chiropractic, and so forth. The multicolored one sponsored by the Kid Connection and The Lucky Penny seemed to be a crowd favorite, but there was an ominous flat-gray Chevy with a big roaring engine that had the no-nonsense look of sheer damn survival to it. It had my attention. The lineup had a Hemingway feel to it, the crowd sensing the impending death of eight cars, with the winner most likely mortally wounded as well.
They fire the unmuffled engines, the stands vibrating from the roar, and at a countdown from three they back into the center, some with a dash and some holding back to wait for targets. They spend as much time running backward as forward, using the trunk as a battering ram; the radiator seems the weak spot and it isn’t long before steam rises from around the field. Thumping crashes ring out as engines rev high and the battered wrecks get after each other. One by one they grind to a halt, wheels collapsed, axles broken, hoods folded back, trunks driven all the way to the roofline. My burly Chevy and a Pontiac like it are the last two moving, barely, wheels wobbly but still spinning, tires flopping, engines steamed out and running on oil alone and trying to deliver one last telling blow before they seize up. The Chevy dies first. What a battle. The crowd leaves grinning. As they like to say out east: Oh, my.
Monday I bought a book at John’s shop, Cormac McCarthy's latest, No Country For Old Men, and spent most of the next two days reading it. The man writes without compromise, like Roy Buchanan played the guitar: Sometimes an angel band and sometimes a jackhammer. Cut like a razor. One of those artists whose works I buy until I have everything they ever sold.
Wednesday we rode I-90 along the Yellowstone River to Red Lodge, six of us, three motorcycles and an RV, stopping at another living museum in Columbus, the New Atlas on the main street there. They call themselves the Dead Zoo, after all the taxidermata there, from ermine to elk to eagles. The centerpiece is one of those carved and polished hardwood back bars going back to before Great War One. They have rejuvenated the place since we first began stopping there, but it was all just cleaning and painting; they left the essentials the way they were at the turn of the last century, and now their clientele has been rejuvenated as well.
Highway 78 follows the track of the Stillwater River and the East Rosebud Creek south to Roscoe, where it turns eastward through the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains and what a drama that is. We’ve taken this road six or seven times and it’s new every time. Not from a dulling of awareness but from the remarkable big beauty of ranch country set there against the very essence of what mountains should be. Bombing through air laced with the smell of wildflowers on curves and hills at speed is just more stimulation than a person can recall all at once. Western movies try but cannot convey the immense feel of it all.
We stayed a night in Red Lodge and then went east into more high foothills, past the old Smith Mine at Bear Creek and on to Belfry, where we jogged north to Bridger and then took 310 south and caught an old highway at Lovell in Wyoming. East of that fair city there is a turn on 37 that takes you up into the Bighorn Canyon, an unexpectedly dramatic little side trip into the vertical red rock walls along the Bighorn River. We had lunch, came back out, turned east and scaled the mighty Bighorn Mountains on a steep and winding road someone named US14 had been thoughtful enough to build for us. We ended up in Sheridan on the other side and spent some time at the Mint, another of those wild and elegant ladies who survived mostly intact from the old rougher days. A sign posted on the mirror of their grand old polished back bar reads: “We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To Anyone, Regardless Of Who You Are, Who You Think You Are, Who Your Daddy Is, Or How Much Money You Have.” Another, in a more contemporary vein, says: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink And Take Home Ugly Men.” In the freewheeling spirit of the place, a very well-endowed young lady came in the door, fresh from the big motorcycle rally in Sturgis and wearing a white t-shirt with black letters across the front that read: “Yes, They Be Real. And No, You Can’t See Them.”
Next morning we toured the famous King Saddlery, makers of the world-famous King Ropes and another fabulous museum of the old west; they even have a horse-drawn hearse in there. And then we split up. Three went north to Billings for the big two-day Blues Fest, two went back into the Bighorns to camp overnight, and I, restless to ride, headed east on the Interstate. Through Sturgis, across South Dakota and back to Minnesota, in the midst of thousands of bikes heading home from Bike Week. Took a good rain-soaking a couple of times but was solar-dried when I got home.
This was the sixteenth bike trip out west, and every time I get the feeling we do it too fast. There’s so much there and it’s so well preserved a person could make a vacation of any old town along the way, but the ride itself is so strong I get the urge to keep moving. A more reasonable person would cover less ground. I tell myself this, and then I don’t listen. It’s like jogging through the Smithsonian Institute. You just don’t do that.