LAY OF THE LAND: A SERIES OF ESSAYS ON THE SPIRIT OF MONTANA
I could start this story atop the Bozeman Pass, at 10:30 on a snowy March night in the year 2000, big wet flakes swarming in front of my headlights with increasing fury. I could describe my hands clenched on the steering wheel of my tiny car, trying to keep my balding tires in the ankle-deep ruts ahead of me. I could describe my eyes squeezing shut as a passing truck sprayed gallons of slush on my windshield. I could describe my tires making tiny adjustments on the slushpack, momentarily losing their grip and searching for it again, and my whole body clenching up as if the force of my muscles could keep me on the road. I could describe my eyes becoming mesmerized by the flakes, then finally finding the orange light of a plow to follow behind. I could list the oaths I uttered when I realized that he was driving this storm-clogged road with his blade raised.
But if I started that way, you might expect that this was merely a story about an idiot caught in a snowstorm. You would scorn the stupid decisions that put me in this place (they included going to a conference in Butte, dallying at a bar after it ended, and stopping for a leisurely dinner in Bozeman even as I could see the arrival of the predicted storm’s first flakes). You would know that I somehow survived—or else I wouldn’t be writing this—and you would not find compelling the story of a technical writer limping through a snowstorm in a Subaru Justy.
That’s not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about the aftermath of a storm, powerlessness and despair in a blanket of white. My battle with the Montana winter was not so much on Interstate 90, atop that mountain pass or in the windy expanses to its east, but in town, in Livingston and Columbus. The storm thwarted me not by being cold or slippery. I faced a challenge not because my Justy and my sneakers and my fleece jacket were the wrong tools. I was stuck because of a uniquely 21st century obstacle posed by a winter storm: I wanted to check my email.
This is a story of winter’s beauty and winter’s challenge and how we react to them. And though such a story soon departs the Bozeman Pass, as I staggered into a cheap motel on the outskirts of Livingston, it must start up there because that’s what winter looked like outside.
Inside, it was warm. The queen-sized bed was squishy. The motel room had no clock, but the early-morning light had awakened me, and I felt refreshed and determined. I felt an optimism—as I often do in the early morning in a strange place—that today I would make intelligent decisions, today I would accomplish and enjoy everything I set out to do.
Letting the dog out into the motel’s central, wooded courtyard, I looked around and smiled. The snow draped over the trees, cars, and circular drive. Wet and heavy, it smothered the land’s finer features rather than etching them. It seemed to know deep in its snowy heart that March storms are only temporary, it seemed eager for the noon warmth, when it could flop down and ooze its moisture into the earth. For now, however, it sat, a heavy blanket, and I anticipated tossing it off to set my path in life.
I had little luggage: a change of clothes, a toilet kit, and the notebook computer which I had brought in from the cold. The motel’s advantages—pets permitted, a friendly clerk, a cheap price—did not include modular phone jacks, which were the preferred connection in those pre-smartphone days. Without one, I could not check email here, and without fresh data the computer could not serve me. But I was not worried. I was in Livingston, a relatively large, touristy town. An Internet connection should not be far away.
How slowly begins a post-storm day: the sky was still overcast; no sun rose to command all to follow. As I drove downtown, through pleasantly sparse traffic, I saw warm, well-lit houses with unshoveled walks. I pictured their residents, smiling at the beauty outside, yawning, turning up the heat, pouring an extra cup of coffee. I ate a large breakfast at the bakery, where the windows filled with steam and the few patrons tromped snow off their boots upon entering.
I had clients in Chicago who knew nothing of the Montana storm. They knew nothing of how I’d taken off yesterday and driven to Butte, to the meeting of a professional association, where I hoped to drum up additional business. Chances were, my clients in Chicago had not panicked, did not need me. Still, they had probably emailed their comments on my proposal, and with their comments I could start work, even stranded in Livingston waiting for road conditions to improve. If only I could check my email. If I couldn’t, I would waste the morning doing nothing, and after I got home no amount of overtime would make me un-late.
I debated barging in on a friend who had a home office. But I had bumped into her yesterday, when she had seemed preoccupied. Busy perhaps at work—she might not want to give up the computer, even briefly. Or was she somehow annoyed with me? I wasn’t sure I had time to linger over coffee to find out—especially since just yesterday neither of us had seemed willing to linger. I debated with myself. I realized the debate might just be an excuse for my cowboy sense of independence. I do not resemble a cowboy in the horse-and-livestock sense of the word—but then few Montanans today do. Still, most of us share that ethos, some wearing ten-gallon hats to the bar, others (like me) wearing a stubborn self-reliance like a neckerchief. I hated to ask for help. I preferred to take my own tools—a computer, a pen, a 10-year-old Justy (sure, a real cowboy would scoff at them)—and solve my own problem. I preferred to believe that I was toughing something out on my own.
Besides, by now the sun had come out. The snow was melting so fast that those who had not shoveled their walks were probably wondering if they should bother. Surely, I thought, the plows had cleared the interstate. What if I tried to hurry home?
I could give you great details about that trip, but suffice it to say I felt terrible. I felt small, as passing cars continued to dump slush on me. I felt endangered, skidding over hardpack, then slush. I felt weak, chugging along at 30 miles an hour, daring not to go faster. I felt powerless and dependent. I felt angry: at the government for not plowing the highway, at passing trucks for being bigger and tougher than me, at various people and establishments in Livingston, who had somehow conspired to the point where I couldn’t even check my email.
It seems funny, looking back at it. It seems extreme, paranoid, neurotic, and all sorts of other qualities that fit neither the setting nor what I hope is my character. But nevertheless, there it was: I had somehow convinced myself that my clients were paying me to be always available, and I was failing them. I would lose them. I would not gain any new clients. My career would fall into shambles. If at least I could know! If I could check my email. Respond that I was working, or that I was caught in a storm, or that I needed more feedback. Without that ability to raise my voice, I wondered if this resembled the nightmare ranchers sometimes talked about: watching a wolf kill your cattle, while your ornery independence is required to sit on a shelf with your rifle. I’ve heard stories of such frustrations erupting at government hearings. Mine erupted at, of all places, the Stillwater County Library.
I had helped set up Internet access at the Red Lodge library; I had watched tourists thank our librarian for giving them the opportunity to check in on the world they left behind. I believed that through free, universal Internet access, libraries could bridge gaps in wealth, class, and geography to make the “new economy” work for everyone. And now I was delighted to have that work for me. I had been to this library, on a side street in Columbus, before. I knew it to be friendly and efficient. I walked in with confidence and computer.
“What can we do for you today?”
“Do you have Internet? I’d like to check my email.”
The librarian frowned. I explained my situation.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “we don’t allow email on this connection.”
“It got out of control, the way people were downloading files.”
I’d heard this debate before. In 2000, Web-based email accounts had not yet achieved much popularity; librarians were faced with people pulling huge files onto the library’s computer itself. But too impatient to explain, I simply said, “I won’t download anything, then. I’ll just get on the Web.”
She frowned again. In not explaining I was treating her poorly, condescendingly. I was trying to put something over on her. I could feel our relationship disintegrating on the spot.
“Are you a county resident?”
“No!” I was exasperated. In my introductory explanation I had said that I lived one county over.
“This computer was bought with county tax money. It’s not really fair to our taxpayers to let someone who didn’t pay for it use it.”
“There’s nobody using it!” I paused, stunned. Then, reassuringly: “If someone comes in, I’ll get off.”
“Bill Gates is buying our new computer. Grant money. Once that’s set up, I wouldn’t have a problem…”
I think it struck her as odd, that someone would pay for this. But I would have paid $5 for a latte at a cybercafe; I was happy to give that money to her. I could probably even write it off on my taxes. And it seemed that she did have a form to cover such contingencies. I ponied up my $5, and signed a two-page contract. Now that my goal was in sight, I could relax. I tried to defrost the situation.
“I really appreciate this,” I said. But the first blast of the defroster had little visible effect.
She motioned to the computer, and wished me luck.
I laid down my briefcase, took off my jacket, and logged on. It took some time to negotiate the Web. I lived in mortal fear that a county resident would walk through the door, wanting to surf the headlines. I got to my homepage, then logged into my email account. A half-dozen messages displayed. None were from my clients.
Having worked so hard to get here, I went ahead and read some of the messages. I pretended to take notes. I kept sighing in relief. I must have even smiled.
“Good news,” I said, logging off and trying to leave everything as I found it.
“I’m glad,” she said, and though she didn’t look glad, she did appear to be warming.
I allowed as how, despite the rules, I had in fact checked my email through my Web-based account. I explained how such accounts worked. She already understood the gist of them, and admitted the policy could be changed.
“I really appreciate you doing me this favor,” I concluded.
“Well, when a person’s desperate…”
I should have said, “Touché,” although I’m never emotionally ready to make that comeback. But I did, slowly, silently, review the pointlessness of my paranoia. I realized that my clients always juggled dozens of projects, and probably expected me to be in the same boat. I could have dawdled all day. In fact, I was tempted to, rather than fight the road conditions. If the Interstate had been bad, the back roads home would be worse.
“Heard anything about the roads to Red Lodge?”
“I think they’re fine,” she said. And they were.
We had another snowstorm, a week or so later. There were not many during that dry winter. But during that next storm, I awakened to that sleepy feel of unlimited potential, and admired it out the window. I had an extra cup of coffee.
It’s true that I checked my email that morning, from the convenience of my home office. And it’s true that the act comforted me, in the way that only an addict gains comfort. But since I didn’t have to go anywhere, I built up no frustration at the storm. I enjoyed it. I looked out at the trees and cars and streets draped with snow. I let the pace of my own day, my ambitions, my existence, fall into that set by nature.
About 11 I shoveled out my walk, and strolled down to the post office, where I saw Joe, my blind 91-year-old neighbor. Having memorized his way to the post office, he went there every day.
“Little bit o’ snow out there,” he said.
“Sort of fun,” I responded. “Not like last week.” I gave him a quick version of this story. I concluded, “I’d convinced myself that I had to go somewhere in the storm.”
He wasn’t quite nodding his head, but I could feel some sort of approval, as if my story signified moving beyond cowboy superficiality to the old-time Montanans’ true sense of winter. “It’s not snow that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s us bein’ in a hurry that’s the problem.”
“Yeah,” I said, etching that voice in my memory, to play for myself in every subsequent winter. “Yeah.”
John Clayton’s books include “The Cowboy Girl” and, most recently, “Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier.” He lives in Red Lodge.