Post Cards from Red Lodge, Montana

I took a writing class at the Audubon workshop, and it nearly undid me. Perhaps I responded badly because I was tired. I tended to stay up late at the campfire, drinking with the help and singing songs instead of trooping off to bed like the dutiful school teachers who were my fellow campers. I felt compelled to get up in time for breakfast, though. Having grown up in a large family, I’m very sensitive to food which is available for a limited time only. Late to bed and early to rise made Tom a fuzzy and tetchy guy.

The writing teacher was the editor-superego personified. “Rewrite!” she said, light flashing off the large square glasses that were the windshields of her soul. “Rewrite!” Her small rodent incisors bit off the word. “Thoreau rewrote Walden 22 times”. I sat on the porch of the cabin that served as our classroom. The dry wind moaned over the valley, and sucked the moisture out of my mouth, eyes, skin. The stream gurgled and chuckled. There was lots to write about, and absolutely no graceful way to say it. My pencil hovered in the air like the swallows over the stream, swooping down, never alighting. My internal editor vibrated in joyful response to the teacher’s command. Practically nothing got written.

All this is to say that my inner editor is mortified by the miniscule amount of editing that goes into these postings. But there is so much to say and so little time, that I feel that I must dispense with any artistic merit, and simply try to keep you up to date on where I am.

And so, a postcard of Fourth of July.

I started off the Fourth in Red Lodge Montana, where I had camped on the rodeo grounds. There were a lot of other RV’s, especially the RV/pickup combination. I think they were mostly cowboys for the rodeo, but I didn’t go a-knockin’. In front of one RV was a hay bale with the plastic head of a calf (or sheep?) on it. Two guys spent their spare time roping it.

I decided to drive along the Chief Joseph scenic byway in the morning. This is an astounding road. It goes up into the Beartooth mountains over Dead Indian Pass. At the pass, you look over about a 270 degree vista. Grey peaks with capes and patches of snow ring the horizon, lower peaks thrust into the valley. It was here that Chief Joseph led his tribe, the Nez Perce, fleeing from the US army. They didn’t want to live on the reservation, and were trying to escape to Canada. Without the Nez Perce, it is pretty clear that the Lewis and Clark expedition would have perished 75 years earlier.

Over the pass and along the Clark’s fork of the Yellowstone, following the route of the fleeing Nez Perce. Then ascending again, reaching the zone where snow lay about and the meadows were brown and sodden. Some lakes still had ice slush in them. Algae bloom on the ice tinted one frozen lake red and blue. At the top of Beartooth pass, at 10,900 feet, the thin atmosphere, the wind and the endless view all conspired to tear the breath out of my mouth.

I arrived back in Red Lodge just after the rodeo was starting. Several events stick in my mind.

In one event, they called for all the 3 to 7 year olds. Once all the kids were in the center of the ring, a sheep was released into the ring. It had a bunch of 1 and 5 dollar bills stuck to it. The sheep looked at the crowd of kids warily. They weren’t moving yet, so it kind of edged off, keeping its eye on them. Then the judges said “go”, and all the kids rushed at the sheep. I was not aware that a sheep could look startled. In memory now I see it with its eyes bugging out and and its neat mouth forming the words “Oh shit!”. It took off with the horde of munchkins hot on its heels. It managed to evade them for a good long time, but finally they pinned it against the railing. The audience let out a sigh of sympathy. It was a little like Lord of the Flies, I thought.

Another sheep event was called “mutton busters”. In this event kids in crash helmets are placed on the back of sheep. The sheep take off and the kids cling on for dear life looking for all the world like little rag dolls sewn on to the back of sheep. If the ride is successful, the announcer has to plead with the kids to let go, because Dad told them to hold on no matter what.

For me the most compelling event was the bull riding. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen horses ridden so often that it seems natural, but to me it seems clear that the bull will never be ridden for very long. I went back to where I could see the cowboys preparing to ride. The bulls are penned in very small holding areas, backs and sides pressed against the rails that hold them in. The cowboys climb up the railings of the pen and hang there getting ready, tightening ropes, preparing for the ride. At this point the bulls seem if not cooperative at least resigned. Then the gate is flung open and the bull bursts out, pivoting and leaping, huge and muscular, its backside smeared with bright green reeking shit. When the cowboy is either flung off or leaps off — which is never more than about 10 seconds — the bull trots off snorting out great strings of saliva. It heads for the gate with a swagger that suggests that the cowboy was lucky he only tried that for 8 seconds.

There is nothing abstract about riding a bull.

Later that night, I went up to the bluff above the town to see the fireworks. It was very cold and a thin drizzle came and went. I put on most of the layers I had in the van. I pulled my van next to a family which turned out to be from San Francisco. I looked at other families wrapped in blankets, and the couple with the wooden lawn chairs in the back of the pickup truck and remembered sitting on the flat roof of my grandparents’ garage, huddled under blankets with my brothers and sisters, watching the distant fireworks across the bay. It was fun watching the Red Lodge fireworks, and the San Fransiscan’s commentary was lively enough but I missed my family and friends. Fireworks, I think, should be watched in the company of loved ones.

I think I should mention that although my last posting focussed on the joyful parts of camp, it’s not all roses out here. Often when I’m driving by myself I get lonesome. Sometimes I wake up in the morning not knowing what I’m going to do, and am sure that no good can come of that day. I worry about the health of the van, and obsessively check its coolant level, sure that at some point whatever is leaking will give way in a great rush, and I will be unable to drive, stuck way out on some alpine scenic drive that I was foolhardy enough to attempt. Then a tow truck with a large dollar sign on the side will drag the defeated van off to a backwater service station, where an inbred looking mechanic will scratch his head and say “golly, I never worked on one of these before!”

Just so you know. I’m still me out here, and would probably manage to drive a passenger to distraction. Since I don’t have one, I just grate on myself.


About Tom Weiser
This blog is devoted to the development of the Bad Lama's Guide to Meditation.

One Response to Post Cards from Red Lodge, Montana

  1. Pingback: Professor Monkey at the Hot Springs « The Journeys of Thomas Anomalous

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