Originally composed for a Creative Non Fiction Final Assignment, Thanks to Brad Monsma.
“In the Right Place the Trees, at the Right Time the Stars”
Sputnik – Roky Erickson
You’d be hard up for a reason as to why Pumpernickel Valley has a reputation for missing persons or UFO sightings other than it being two hundred miles northeast of Reno Nevada, and a working definition for the middle of nowhere. Day three of driving the mind bends in consideration of catastrophic outcomes provoked by the sheer destitution, if something were to go wrong. Entertainment procured to lighten the mood, an Audible app opened, thumbing up Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, hoping the information dense volume I’d been nibbling at for years would fill the empty space. From the road, distance is measured in mining operations, turn offs for Iron Canyon or Copper Basin with big red ice cream scoops taken from passing hillsides. A polished London accent is quick onto the Great Oxidation Event; an epoch of earth where single celled life forms released an abundance of oxygen into the atmosphere. A transformation necessary to arrive at the world as we know it, evidence of such mass oxidation is rusted rock, million year old banded iron formations, staggered red streaks the nectar of buzzing operations. Both rich for reason complements of scope and scape as though Bryson’s words were pregnant with impeccable timing.
Other cars involved in the migration would pass with, “solar eclipse 2017” written on one or more windows, some detailing their final viewing destination. The shared enthusiasm was comforting, witnessing the flock to totality a shadow predicted to swoop from Oregon to South Carolina. I’d planned to be in its path in Mackay Idaho, a tiny box town on the Western most valley of a series of basins and ranges, formed just north of Craters of the Moon National Monument; a geological headache, a volcanic wasteland home to such places as the Great Rift, Devil’s Cauldron, and Hell’s Half Acre. After turning up the basin many of the locals along the road displayed signs offering camping on their property. Circles and rows of tents and trailers occupied most of the well spaced yards as I drove deeper into the valley.
In Mackay a street fair for the eclipse had closed the main road through town. A bosomy old woman sitting behind a display of artwork greets me as I graze over the pieces. I paused on a recreation of a painting called, “When the Land Belonged to God,” buffalo top a golden ridge, distant hills of pink, sensing the rumble of the herd, I thought it was an appropriate title.
“So what is it you do?” she asked.
“I’m a writer.”
“Follow that, just let the words take you, with hardwork in between.”
“I’ll do that, thank you.”
Further up the street I consulted the BLM booth about a place to camp. I’m handed a map and pointed toward the hills rising behind town. Main street becomes the mountain road as you head west, but due to the street fair everyone was forced up and over a block becoming knights aboard a game of chess. Polaris and quads crowd the flatland with masked campers on dusty supply runs. I’m tailing a row of trucks heading up the hills on winding dirt roads and craning at abandoned mines. Rotted skeletal structures of an industry a hundred years past its boom litter the landscape. Operations were suspended in 1980, the ruins are now relabeled part of a self guided tour, decrepit history with the appeal of a ghost town. A tight pine lined trail cuts North mid ridge before swinging down to a finger of land covered in summer grass, providing a clear view over the valley for the solar spectacle. At night the flicker of campfires scattered over the 10,000 feet of Mackey Peak reassured me of why I’d come to the grand stands.
Eclipse day had risen set to go dark at 11:33am, priming myself with Modest Mouse’s “Night on the Sun” while preparing breakfast. My eclipse glasses resembled the 3D paper cutout ones you’d find in magazines despite the official ISO stamp ensuring the UV wouldn’t fry my eyeballs; putting them on every 5 minutes to check for the moon entering the solar disk. A subtle shade sneaks up on perception, dimming details of the valley floor, its’ begun. Celestial coordination, alignment inevitable, we gather to witness something greater than ourselves. Twilight descends upon the mountains the valley haze clears, stars much further than our own, out shine the corona spilling over the moon. Peaking, the shades come off, a rustic orange coats simmers on the horizon, as if the sun was setting in every direction. As everything always seems still it is not, the moon continued its path letting light escape from where it had first entered, it was over. Cheers echoed up and down the mountain, we’d gained a perspective of totality then things returned as if it never happened.
The Following Summer
One night while scrolling through Instagram I came across a post from an old friend about a trip to Glacier National Park planned for later that summer. The idea had stuck with me and in a months time I was packed for a trip North. The morning of my departure I stopped at the local Starbucks for a road brew; the line was to the door, a man of many years sat at the first table typing on a laptop, a stack of books on the edge.
“Are these for sale?”.
I picked up a copy from the stack, Open Spaces My Life With Leonard J. Mountain Chief Blackfeet Elder, Northwest Montana, by Jay North.
“I’ll take one, I’m on my way to Glacier,” handing over a twenty. Taking one off the top,
“Who do I make this out to”?
Thanking me and wishing me luck, I set off with coffee and a skeleton key.
Zig zagging North to Tahoe night as falls I’m in eye shot of a forest meadow where cattle graze, at Crater Lake I watch haggard PCT hikers crowd the ranger station for mail and chocolate. An unexpected sight stands in Maryhill Washington, a replica Stonehenge nestled on a lump in the Columbia River Gorge. A vision of Sam Hill built in dedication to the soldiers of Klickitat County who gave their lives in World War I. Since 1929 it has baffled the ribbed hills with the charm of an English countryside.
A bookstore in Spokane displays Lonely Planet guide to Glacier National Park, and The Best American Travel Writing of 2017, edited by Lauren Collins, I return with the titles to a text from Mom, a link to a National Park Service website evacuations for all of West Glacier due to fire. If I had rushed I would’ve been right in the middle of it; I’d come too far to be turned back now. That night at the Missoula Club which has been serving beer and burgers since 1890, the interior was lined with framed team photos of every sport played in Missoula over the past century.
At East Glacier it was getting late and the sole campground was full, I was directed North to Saint Mary. The sun dipped below the mountains when I’m still twenty miles away. Turning around to inspect a turn out with a trail leading up the mountain, a sign demarcating Blackfeet Reservation, vowing respect I carry on with belief that it’d be too remote for anyone to enforce anything. Not far in the trail leads to a field of gravel pitched at forty five degrees, evidence of the hillside unbuttoning its pants. Imagining my truck rolling down the mountain coming to a rest wrapped around a pine in a steaming twist. I crossed on foot to ensure it was even worth attempting, as luck would have on the other side a flat spot lay just off the road with a view West into the mountains. Trusting the tire track barely distinguishable in the gravel I slide in a gear and crept over bumps and dips at times the angle so acute the ground seemed to be in the passenger seat. Exhaling, the dice had stayed on the table, now there was just getting back.
In the morning the crunch of a mama elk on the gravel draws my groggy head out the window, pleased to find her two calves in pursuit.
The road into Glacier from Saint Mary is called Going to the Sun, which takes its name after a mountain on the way to Logan pass. I met a guy from Texas, he said it was the road featured in the opening scene of the movie The Shining,
“it’s the road they take to the hotel you know”
“I even put on the song from the movie as we were going,” his excitement left me wondering just how far the recreation would go. He was there with his family, after listening to the song during the entire drive in they might be ready for some redrum.
I snagged a campsite before leaving to find some water to swim in, just before sun down one of the park rangers came around to inform everyone of the nightly program at the campfire that evening. Before heading down I made the rare choice of wearing socks with my Rainbow sandals, because why not it’s a campground full of people I don’t know. A minute into my walk I hear,
Looking to my right, I see Brendan with his camera, sitting out the back of an SUV.
“What are you doing here?”
I explained to him and his girlfriend Michelle that it was his Instagram post months ago that inspired my trip. With half the park closed due to fire, they had been redirected leaving Banff as I had been in Spokane, still neither of us had any clue our trips would overlap. Even better Michelle had just been teasing Brendan about wearing socks and sandals.
“See Michelle I’m not the only one, thank you for showing up on my side” Brendan applauded.
“You guys are ridiculous,” she declared.
Promising to stop in for a beer on my way back, I made my way to the little amphitheater of log benches fanning out from the fire pit filing in with others as the program was already underway.
A night of storytelling and song from “Montana’s Troubadour,” Jack Gladstone. A citizen of the Blackfeet nation who knew the families in West Glacier whose multigenerational cabins along Lake McDonald that were lost to the fire. Each song he played on guitar came with a backstory or hand gestures that he taught the audience to accompany certain verses. Each time he said “The Bear Who Stole The Chinook,” we’d mime a bear pawing a wispy breeze, waving in unison on “our hero’s journey to release the wind turned west to the mountain bear’s den.” In conclusion he performed his own mash up of “Over The Rainbow,” and “Let It Be” as a feel good send off. My arms full of goosebumps a shiver down my spine, eyes melt with ambience. The gathering dissolves, parents retreat into the night with sleeping children in their arms, I return for a warm beer, cheersing life.
Sometimes things just align.