Editor’s note: When this Lay of the Land series started, I explained how it came into being by accident, after several people sent me unsolicited essays. Now, having published 16 of these pieces, all of them looking at life in Montana, we have come to the end of the twice-a-month series.
I’ve got a couple of essays from contributors hanging fire, and several people are still working on pieces, but from now on this will be an occasional feature, with essays published as they come in, rather than every other Wednesday.
Here, to end the formal series, is an old essay of mine, which originally appeared in the Montana Quarterly, then in my book and then in a collection of writings on the West. So yes, it’s gotten some mileage already, but I figured sooner or later it had to find a home on Last Best News. Here we go:
I can’t imagine what my uncle must have thought when I called him from the University of Montana in Missoula in the winter of 1974 and told him I was going to be living in the woods that coming spring.
I’m from Minnesota, and during high school I lived with my aunt and uncle in a suburb of Minneapolis. Most of our clan who had left Minnesota had stayed in the Midwest or had gone off to the East Coast. I chose Montana, for reasons that included a bit of romanticism, a little hearsay and for the most part a heedless whimsy, which I was big on in those days. And there I was in the second quarter of my first year of college, announcing that I was going to be living outside, or nearly so. My friend from New York and I were going to live in a tent, or possibly under a lean-to. Our plan was to continue our higher education but to live in Hellgate Canyon, the narrow chute through which the Clark Fork River enters Missoula from the east. We planned to settle in about a mile from campus, close enough so we could walk back to civilization every morning handsomely begrimed and smelling of wood smoke.
What, my uncle wanted to know, had inspired my rather unusual resolution? It wasn’t something easy to explain.
I am susceptible to the influence of books. When I think of my childhood I am more apt to picture pages from “A Fly Went By” than actual scenes inhabited by my younger self. The first time I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I spent much of one summer in Middle Earth, with only occasional forays back to the drab kingdom of Suburbia. Once, reading Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” set in a Swiss sanatorium full of feverish tuberculosis patients, I contracted—or willed myself to develop—a raging, hallucinatory fever, the worst of my life. And during winter quarter of my first year of college, I took a literature class, which I believe was called “Cowboys and Indians: Literature of Red and White.” Of the books we read I remember only two, Dan Cushman’s “Stay Away, Joe,” which was good, and A. B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky,” which was more than good. It was transformative, in the sense of having persuaded a citified teenager who possessed no skills or knowledge that would have done him any good in the wilderness to imagine himself a backwoodsman. How could I explain to my uncle that I wanted not merely to live in Montana but to live out, in my own small way, the story of Montana as constructed by A.B. Guthrie?
“The Big Sky” is mainly the story of Boone Caudill, a headstrong young Kentuckian who lights out for the West in 1830 in search of freedom, of unfettered wildness. I was not unmoved by the plot, or by the great tragedy at the heart of the book, but what stirred me most at the time were Guthrie’s descriptions of the land itself, this “great sprawling magnitude of the west” that I found myself in. I was intoxicated by the grandeur of Guthrie’s vision, by scenes like this:
High along the slopes of the peaks the snow lay patched. Between the mountains and the Missouri was high, bare country, where a man on a rise saw buttes swimming in the distance and the distance itself rolling off so far that he lost himself looking into it.
In truth, Missoula was in a tight, hemmed-in valley, and Hellgate Canyon was more compressed still, but this vastly beautiful place was my new home, and Guthrie showed me large parts of it that I could not have found grander had I discovered them on my own.
The feel of the country settled into Jim, the great emptiness and age of it, the feel of westward mountains old as time and plains wide as forever and the blue sky flung across. The country didn’t give a damn about a man or any animal. It let the buffalo and the antelope feed on it and the gophers dig and the birds fly and men crawl around, but what did it care, being one with time itself? What did it care about a man or his hankerings or what happened to him? There would other men after him here would be other men after him and others after them, all wondering and all wishful and after a while all dead.
I didn’t try explaining all this to my uncle. He had been bewildered but compliant, and had even agreed to let me have the money that ordinarily would have paid for my room and board. I’m sure he was relieved when our plans fell apart. The closer spring quarter got, the sillier the prospect looked. What finally killed it was the impossibility of finding a sufficiently secluded spot within walking distance of campus, for Hellgate Canyon was regularly traversed by numerous other college students, a smattering of older folks and too damned many young kids, who were our main worry. We realized that our camp would be plundered and vandalized if it were anywhere near close enough to walk back and forth to school. We took some ribbing from friends when we gave up on our little dream, but I had no regrets. At 18, life-altering resolutions are as easily abandoned as conceived, and we had an awful lot of fun just imagining ourselves as mountain men.
If I gave up my plans to live like Boone Caudill, I never let go of “The Big Sky.” I read it through two or three more times, and for years it was my bedside book, the one I turned to when I wanted to read for a few minutes in the morning, or when I was nodding off at night but not quite ready for sleep. In a sense it speeded up the acclimation process. It filled in some of the missing history and sense of place that people born here would have learned by osmosis. It didn’t make me a Montanan—I still haven’t figured out how long you have to live here before you feel comfortable hanging that label on yourself—but it went a long way toward making me want to be one.
That didn’t prevent my whimsy from luring me back to Minnesota in the mid-1980s. But after five years in the Twin Cities, my wife, a native of Missoula, and I were so eager to move back to Montana that I accepted a job in Billings. In the past, I had never gone to Billings except in the company of the Missoula Flying Mules, a barely organized, nominally adult men’s hockey team that played all its games on the road because Missoula in those days didn’t have its own rink. Always coming here as an outsider, a challenger, had something to do with the image of Billings I developed, but my dislike for the town went deeper than that. The stink of the place alone—from the oil refineries, the sugar beet plant and a now-defunct meatpacking plant—was enough to make us glad we were just weekend drop-ins. And unlike Missoula, with its loose, late-hippie feel and its large population of college students, Billings seemed to be a collection of arrogant oil men and go-getter business types in spanking-new cowboy hats and freshly ironed blue jeans. But the Billings Gazette had offered me a job as a night editor and Billings was in Montana and that was the main thing.
I had been in Billings barely more than a month, in the summer of 1989, full of doubts and wondering what I’d gotten myself into, when I fell under the sway of another Montana book. I had just read “The California and Oregon Trail” by Francis Parkman, the great historian’s account of his ethnographical sortie into the land of the Plains Indians in 1846. It was a fascinating read, but marked by a pervasive condescension toward the Indians. That was forgivable, considering when it was written, but I wanted more direct knowledge about Indian life. A friend recommended “Plenty-coups, Chief of the Crows,” by Frank Linderman.
Plenty-coups was born in 1848, not far from the present site of Billings. In the late 1920s, nearly blind and not completely trusting his memory, Plenty-coups, aided by interpreters and sign language, sat down and told the story of his life to Linderman. Even in Plenty-coups’ youth the lifestyle of the Plains Indians was clearly doomed, but when he brought to life the world he knew as a boy, it was as if that world would go on forever. The freedom that Boone Caudill struggled to extract from the West was given to Plenty-coups as a birthright. He had nothing to rebel against or to run from, only a promise to live up to.
“My heart was afire,” Plenty-coups told Linderman. “I wished so to help my people, to distinguish myself, so that I might wear an eagle’s feather in my hair. How I worked to make my arms strong as a grizzly’s, and how much I practiced with my bow! A boy never wished to be a man more than I.”
My own heart was afire. It was like reading ancient history, for like the ancient Greeks Plenty-coups had dedicated himself to honor, harsh pleasures, and war. And like the heroes of the Trojan War, he always spoke in high praise of his vanquished enemies, making sure to point out how handsome and brave his victims had been. The Crow Indians raised their boys in an atmosphere of intense emulation, constantly inspiring them with examples of bravery and endurance. The young boys learned to run by chasing butterflies, which they would catch and rub on their bodies, hoping to obtain their powers. They swam in the rivers at all seasons of the year, dodging ice floes in the winter. When he was a young man, Plenty-coups said, he could run from sunup to sundown without stopping, and you believe him. If there are not so many rapturous descriptions of the land here as in “The Big Sky,” it is because they are not necessary. It is a given that there is no finer spot on earth. As another Crow chief, Arapooish, said in a famous speech, “The Crow country is exactly in the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow country.”
Plenty-coups’ book immediately altered the way I looked at Billings. It was no longer a cowtown that had changed into a crass, rough-and-ready commercial burg. Now it had a past and a context that stretched back beyond the edge of written history, and its landmarks seemed full of mystery and meaning. Just as “The Big Sky” had speeded up my internship as a newcomer to Montana, “Plenty-coups” made me love this part of Montana, in just a few days, in a way that I could not have loved it at all without the book. And when I finished it, a friend took me down to Pryor, on the Crow Reservation, to the two-story wooden house where Plenty-coups had lived in his old age. We sat under the same cottonwood trees that shaded Plenty-coups as he dictated the story of his life to Linderman. We peered into his locked and empty house and we even presumed to make tobacco offerings at the little spring-fed pool near his house.
Older if not wiser by then, and having a job and two daughters, I harbored no dreams of going off to live in the mountains. But I couldn’t look over the Yellowstone Valley, or off toward the Pryor, Beartooth or Crazy mountains without thinking of Plenty-coups. I took my daughters down to Plenty-coups’ house and into the Pryors, and we swam in the Yellowstone River more often than my wife considered altogether prudent. I never quite shook the feeling of strangeness that came over me when I thought of Plenty-coups—the idea that this man who seemed so ancient and inaccessible had lived where I lived, and his house still stood, and he had died only a generation before I was born. I wasn’t so fortunate as to have the circle of elders who counseled Plenty-coups when he was a boy and who affirmed the strength of the vision he had high up in the Crazy Mountains, but it seemed to me that books like “The Big Sky” and “Plenty-coups” were our elders, if only we would listen to them.
There were other Montana books that served as elders and that schooled me and moved me over the years. Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It,” James Welch’s “Fools Crow,” Richard O’Malley’s “Mile High Mile Deep”—all books that had to be read more than once, and which grew on me nearly as much as “Plenty-coups” and “The Big Sky” had done. I haven’t lived in enough places or read enough books to hazard an opinion on our relative standing, or even to know whether I sound laughably provincial, but it seems as though Montana is blessed with a disproportionate bounty in terms of natural beauty and the stature of our books.
Which brings me to one more, “We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher,” by E.O. “Teddy Blue” Abbott. Like “Plenty-coups,” this is an as-told-to memoir, in this case dictated to and compiled by Helena Huntington Smith. The old cowboy, like the old Crow Chief, didn’t need much editing. As Smith says in the introduction, her main job “was to keep out of the way and not mess it up by being literary.” It might seem strange that I’m including two ghost-written memoirs among my three favorite pieces of Montana “literature,” but here we are in the company of the ancients again, when the best stories were told by people who had lived their adventures, not simply narrated them.
Teddy Blue was born in England in 1860, 12 years after Plenty-coups. He came to the United States in 1871 and settled with his family in Nebraska. Soon after their arrival, Abbott’s father bought some cattle in Texas and Teddy Blue was allowed to join the drive to Nebraska, the family thinking it would be good for the health of the “poorliest, sickliest little kid you ever saw,” as Teddy Blue described himself. Teddy Blue was soon a bona-fide cowpuncher, going all the way from Texas to Montana for the first time in 1883. He tells his story more or less chronologically, but no one ever enjoyed a digression more. And these are not the digressions of a scatter-brained old man. Teddy Blue knew he was telling the story of a heroic group of men that he was proud to be part of, and he wanted to get every detail of their lives down: their gear and their clothing, their grub and their methods of working, their ways of fighting and thinking and taking pleasure. It was a life of incredible hardship and danger, where dismemberment and death awaited the smallest slip. When the cattle were on the move or had to get to water, the cowboys stayed in the saddle so long they would rub tobacco juice in their eyes to keep awake. And it was no use complaining: “If you said anything to the boss, he would only say, ‘What the hell are you kicking about? You can sleep all winter when you get to Montana.’ ” Fat chance. Those cowpunchers were so fired up by the time they hit a wide-open town like Miles City, Montana, that they might have gotten more sleep on the trail.
“I never had time to gamble,” Teddy Blue said; “I couldn’t sit still long enough; I always had to be up, talking, singing, drinking at the bar. I was so happy and full of life, I used to feel, when I got a little whiskey inside me, that I could jump twenty feet in the air. I’d like to go back and feel that way once more. If I could go back I wouldn’t change any of it.” The whole book is like that—vivid, unrepentant, electrifyingly alive. I have sometimes thought there might be a connection between extremely difficult, hazardous occupations and the flowering of a language lively and direct enough to encompass them—witness Melville aboard a whaler, or Twain piloting a steamboat. As Smith says of Teddy Blue’s English, “of all the varieties of speech in the United States, I don’t know any that for color and violence can touch the authentic Western American.” I was smitten by his language, and by his evocation of a glorious, fleeting chapter in the history of this state. The plains and rivers of Eastern Montana took on new meaning for me, and Miles City, which I barely knew before reading Teddy Blue, has fascinated me ever since.
In these three books we have the three great themes of early Montana: the twilight of the Plains Indian tradition; the mountain man’s glory in that brief era when a European could at least pretend to share in Eden; and that even shorter period when the open-range cowboy was king, when a man lived in the saddle and there wasn’t a fence to be seen all the way from Texas to Montana. But these three books that have shaped and re-shaped the way I feel about Montana have more in common than geography, and they describe more than mythological lives. In all of them, there is a feeling of great sadness at the end being near, the curtain coming down. When Plenty-coups was a boy, his powerful vision was of “buffalo without number” coming out of a hole in the ground. When they finally stopped coming, they were all suddenly gone, and then out of the hole came countless more bulls, cows and calves. But these were all spotted buffalo, “strange animals from another world.” They were the white man’s cattle, which Plenty-coups had not seen before he dreamt of them. It seemed impossible, but come they did, and then the buffalo were gone. Plenty-coups speaks of the transition with a note of noble fatality, only noting, not complaining. In Guthrie’s fiction, Boone Caudill makes an attempt to hang onto the vanishing past. He takes a Blackfoot wife and wants nothing more, he thinks, than to live as an Indian, only to realize at the end of “The Big Sky” that he himself had a hand in killing paradise. In real life, Teddy Blue married the half-Snake Indian daughter of Montana pioneer Granville Stuart, and he quotes with approval what his friend, the artist Charlie M. Russell, said of the Indians: “They’ve been living in heaven for a thousand years, and we took it away from ’em for forty dollars a month.”
You want Plenty-coups and Boone Caudill and Teddy Blue Abbott to be 20 years old forever, but it can’t happen, even in the pages of a book. And Montana can’t just be this beautiful, uncomplicated place. As our stories tell us, it is haunted by all the things that cannot be undone.