Saturday, November 29, 2008


With the warmth of a horse underneath me, the funeral-parlor lighting cast by the gathering clouds chills only my fingertips. I can feel my horse’s muscles bunch, his spine curve as he picks up my heading and moves off. I can feel the tension through his shoulders, a shortness of step that tells me he’d rather be running. But where can we run? Penned in by private property and housing developments, the land here has been pettily fenced away.
Rolling landscape, neat shrubs, and evenly spaced electric boxes lay like an architect’s blueprint across farm fields, formerly hardwood forest. With the downturn in the housing market, the newly-cleared lots sit empty. We jog along where the woods meet the neatly mown grass, and Howdy flicks his ears suspiciously. “I see it,” I tell my horse, and we slow to a walk. I hum loudly, and a hunter in a tree stand turns, eyeing us silently for antlers. We have none; his gun remains across his lap.
Howdy would prefer to go left at this junction, but I’m concerned about the line of trees ahead. It seems a likely place for more men with guns. We move away at a long trot and lengthen into a gentle lope.
Our only choice ahead is a subdivision. The private woods are far too dangerous, and the highway too busy, but the subdivision is my last choice. The condos here are exact copies of one another, in a dark, muted gray, mimicking the landscape in never-ending reflections. I feel trapped in an Escher drawing. Howdy casts wary glances to either side, and his bright blanket reflects loudly off the shiny windows.
Hoofbeats echo, and the air is still. Perhaps the apocalypse has come, I think, and we are the only survivors. Perhaps in this neighborhood everyone works third shift, and they’re asleep. Maybe they are watching behind drawn curtains, suspecting the worst of a stranger. Maybe they are simply out hunting.
The roar of an SUV grows, and I press my left leg to Howdy, asking him to hug the curb. He balks at the sidewalk—he’s heard rumors sidewalks swallow horses whole. Boy, does he feel sheepish when the concrete holds his weight! I forgive him this misconception—my horse has never seen a sidewalk before.
Apparently, the people in the SUV have never seen a horse before. A rainbow of cheap knits stretched tightly over plentiful flesh pours out. Auntie wears spectacles and a haircut like a medieval warrior. Her sister curls her lip to show yellowed teeth, and I am reminded of a fighting dog. The daughter, a pear-shaped twenty-something, has hair the color of cotton candy. They stand like a disapproving wall of fat, staring.
Howdy doesn’t even flick an ear toward our audience, but I glare plainly, and I hope, with as much disgust on my face as they are showing on theirs. My horse leaves the sidewalk and steps strongly back onto asphalt, striding for home. The echo of his steps helps me recognize how quickly I can leave humanity behind, and we boldly turn ninety degrees and lope off through a backyard. I hear faintly a boy’s voice: “There’s a horse in the middle of the street!”
Ah, but we wouldn’t be in the middle of the street if you hadn’t paved it all. We wouldn’t be in the middle of the street if modern neon warriors weren’t zealously guarding their private properties, allowing deer to cross borders but no one else. We wouldn’t be in the middle of the street if your parents weren’t so enthusiastically proliferating, little boy, because then there would be some wild land yet remaining for us to ride.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Modern West

We left Wisconsin in sunshine and tears. An eagle bid us a solemn farewell as we crossed the Mississippi River. Through Minnesota, the skies turned hostile, and it slut on us. Rather than sleeting, it most definitely slut. Before the weather turned, however, I saw something odd on the side of the road. It looked like a prosthetic arm that had been run over by a car. Later, in South Dakota, I saw another oddity on the side of the road. It looked like a black plastic prosthetic leg that had been discarded on the shoulder. Who is throwing away perfectly good plastic body parts?
The first animals to greet us as we entered the west, besides the ever-present red-tails and sparrow hawks, were a herd of mule deer wandering along a fence line. We crossed over the Missouri River in Chamberlain/Oacoma, SD, while the front passed over, letting the setting sun bathe the gorgeous hills in mist and roses. The hills here are beautiful. They roll down to the river tumultuously, like lava flows drying in the sunlight and tumbling over one another. Lewis and Clark stopped here in 1806. Lewis wanted to find a female pronghorn to send home, so he chose seven of his best hunters and set out over the hills. He described the trees found on the banks, and a prairie dog town of two miles by three miles. When they topped the rise overlooking the prairie, Lewis recorded seeing herds of pronghorn, elk and bison as far as the eye could see. Bison alone he estimated at 2,000. This land still lends itself to the ghosts of its past. The cattle spot the hills like bison once did, and the same water laps at the shoreline that carried Lewis and Clark along two hundred years ago. The men in the restaurant wear cowboy hats. But from the window of my brand-new, name-brand hotel, I spot an old man in an orange vest, wheeling his bicycle and picking through the garbage cans behind the Shell station.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

In honor of T Day, some comments on celebrating genocide...

Is it true? Has Wisconsin really forgotten Columbus Day? Have we abandoned the memory of the venerated explorer and his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria? So it seems, said many Wisconsinites.
I really don’t care,” Lisa Werner, 23, said. “Why bother with it? We all make our own way in the world.”
“I’ve never really celebrated Columbus Day,” Michelle Misiora, 36, said, lowering her voice in a sign of embarrassment. “I wouldn’t even know how.”
“Yeah, we get a day off that day,” Cindy Venus, 49, said. “It reminds me of years ago when we were in grade school, singing about 1492.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, but you know, that’s not right, because 400 years from now, people won’t care about 9/11, and that’s not right.”
Many doubt the validity of the holiday. Since Columbus wasn’t necessarily the first European on the continent, some contend it is useless to commemorate the day. Others said it was effectively dead in the collective memory.
“Quite honestly,” said Shelley Learned, 33, “I don’t realize it’s Columbus Day until I don’t receive any mail. Seriously, I don’t even know why we celebrate any more.”
“My sister called on Monday, and she said she had off, and I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, some holiday.’ It took five minutes between the two of us to figure out what it was.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really know anything about Columbus Day. I don’t care about celebrating it anyway. When was it?” Jennifer Hegelson, 22, said. “Stuff like that is in the past as far as I’m concerned.”
“I didn’t even know it was Columbus Day,” said Crystal Cresci, 21. “Why would I celebrate? Leif Erickson and the Vikings were here first, anyway.”
Despite the parades and elementary school celebrations, some Wisconsinites even hate Columbus Day.
“It sucks,” Kyle Frederick, 24, said. “I could get some more pre-approved credit cards on that day, but no, no mail. Fucking Chris Columbus.”
“I think celebrating Columbus Day is like celebrating Hitler’s birthday,” Dustin Pares, 19, said.
“Which people do,” Jory Waldbillig, 22, added. “It would be okay if we got a day off.”
Both said they disagreed with the holiday on principle, referring to the eventual genocide committed against the native populations of the continent by Columbus’s followers.
Others expressed their loathing through sarcasm.
“Columbus Day is a great day for me to sit down and reflect about this great land we inherited. This great land, let me tell you, this great land is great for its stupidity in choosing holidays,” Alex Schaefer, 20, said.
“I sympathize with [American Indians] because of the fact I was taught that Columbus was a hero. You have the entire world around them thinking he was some sort of saint for finding the new world, when all he did was rape and pillage. And we celebrate that rape! It’s insulting, and frankly, they have every right to protest for education that he was a slanderous, slave-trading, spice-hoarding asshole.”
And finally, some simply expressed confusion.
“I thought Columbus Day was Thanksgiving,” Elizabeth Borst, 21, said. “Why can’t they just group all that shit?”
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Agates and Ashes

There are few streets in Terry, Mont. They sound like regular streets: Spring Street, Park Street, Jane Street. When you leave town, they let you know: Bad Route Road, Old Highway Road, Badlands Road.
The regular streets map out neat squares. The wild gravel roads follow the contours of the earth. They cut through the rough badlands, jagged and colorful like torn construction paper. They wind along the ribbon of green cottonwoods hemming the Yellowstone River.
The average daily commute of a Terry resident is 14.2 miles, according to the state of Montana. Some of them work in retail, others, in service. Not many though: Terry has one hotel, one restaurant, one grocery store, and there are only five beds in Prairie County Hospital.
The hospital and the hotel are white. In the winter, they blend into the surrounding landscape. Sometimes, snow makes that 14.2 miles impassable.
“I drive 16 miles to get here,” Ruth Frank, Prairie County Museum board member, says. “That’s why we close after Labor Day—no one comes in winter, and when it snows, no one could.”
In one room of the museum, burned into boards, Frank can point out her husband’s brand, her son’s brand, and two of her grandsons’ brands. Two brands are identical: one grandson uses his grandfather’s cattle brand. Ranch, or farm, or fish—that’s what people out here do.
“Lots of people come for the agates,” she says, picking up a stone pulled from the Yellowstone. The agates are clear, colored like sand paintings, spotty, or almost black. They vary like the colors in the bluffs. When she says lots of people, she says, she means a few, from here and there.
But lots of people do come to Terry for another reason: old photos.
There are lots of old photos in the Prairie County Museum. “Just about the whole population of Prairie County could fit in one of these old photos today,” Frank says. In her hand she has a panoramic photo of the townfolks, all lined up in front of the old school house. It’s from 1924.
There are fewer than 1200 people in Prairie County. Frank says they began leaving after the Great Depression, when times were tough. She says times never really got better.
The photos that attract the tourists show a tough time. But they are older than the Great Depression.
One day in the 1970s, Donna Lucey found a trunk of photos in a Terry basement. The photos dated between 1894 and 1928. They showed people building cabins, and stacks of wool. They showed women holding coyote puppies, and homesteaders standing proudly in front of their shacks. They showed the frightening forms nature could carve from rock. One of them showed the photographer herself, standing on the back of a white horse.
Evelyn Cameron came to the area in the 1800s. “She loved it so much here that she convinced [husband] Ewan to move from England,” says Frank. “See how rough her skin became from the sun and wind? She was a very modern lady. They nearly ran her out on rails when she came into town wearing bloomers!”
The Cameron’s polo pony fortunes met with bad luck, and Lady Cameron picked up a camera as a way to make ends meet, according to Lucey’s book, “Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron.” Cameron’s photographs show a desolate country. Tough women hold wild dogs; men dress their finest for her lens. Mostly, though, they show her love for Montana.
Frank loves Montana too, enough that she stuck through the hard times. But many aren’t as tough as Frank. The median resident age in Terry is 53. Compared to the rest of the state, Terry’s median household income is $30,700, below the state median of $43,531. The median house value is significantly below average: $42,500 in Terry, to $170,000 for the state.
Frank recognizes there isn’t a lot to keep young people here. There’s only one television station, and one FM radio station. “We have the drive-in theater,” she says, but she knows it’s not enough.
The Prairie County Museum is full. Every room in the three-story bank building is full, even the vaults. Next door, the gallery walls are covered in Lady Cameron’s photographs. When the young people leave, the old residents find they have no one to pass their treasures on to. If anything benefits from the young people leaving Terry, it’s the museum.
Despite the rutted roads and their forbidding names, the young people leave. Their grandmother’s teapot and their grandfather’s hat hang on this wall.
Frank picks up another photograph—this one is new. It’s a school portrait from 2004, grades seven and eight. Thirty small faces smile in front of Terry Elementary.
“If it wasn’t in color, you couldn’t even tell it was new, could you?” Frank says.
# # # #

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Blue Ribbon for Howdy

In every interview with a legendary horseperson, there is a repeated phrase: “You get one great horse in a lifetime.” For most of them, it was a champion, a versatile, intelligent partner that brought home blues in arenas around the nation. For some it was a horse that triumphed over a bad start, and grew to develop an unbreakable bond with their rider, and then brought home blues in arenas around the nation.

My equine soul mate may never have won a blue ribbon in his life. He’s a big boned, big-butted unregistered Appaloosa. Rumor has it he was raised on the eastern plains of Montana. His arena-sourness, his hard mouth, and his ability with a rope suggest he was once a rope horse. I know he was sold at auction and ended up carrying wranglers in Yellowstone National Park, where I met him. The day that rat-tailed Appaloosa was led out of the corral, I knew that horse was mine.

Howdy had no brakes, and ran with his head in the air. He would run until he won, no matter if he fell on his face five times first. I clung to him like a monkey, and would stand up in the stirrups with all hundred pounds of me pulling when it was time to stop. We probably didn’t make a pretty pair, but all anyone ever saw of us was his spotted butt anyway. Howdy and I herded bison off trails, moved bears away from guests, and surprised moose in bushes. We ran full out for three months, until my seasonal summer job came to an end. He came when I called his name one last time, and then I put him on a trailer and watched him drive away.

That one summer in Montana ruined me. I couldn’t do the city thing anymore, so I found a year-round job at a dude ranch and told myself with 80 horses under my care, there would be another Howdy. Ha! Howdy was cranky, stubborn and wouldn’t cross bridges, but he understood me. The horses at my new ranch were prettier, quieter, and better trained, but they just weren’t him. It took a month to convince my former boss to sell. One of the happiest days of my life I got this message: “Well, if he’s worth that much to you, you can come on over and pick him up.” I cried.

Three years later, I kicked my cowboy out of the apartment and broke off the wedding. Howdy wasn’t surprised. We were leaving the ranch, but I was leaving first. I told Howdy that cowboy was going to put him on a trailer, and I would be there to unload him at the other end.

Howdy nickered at me as soon as he stepped off the trailer. At his new pasture, he wouldn’t let the owner pet him, but he’d come trotting when I came to the gate. A month after we had settled into our new home, I answered a call from my former cowboy.

My former cowboy knew Howdy was never dangerous. Howdy had wrangled herds of horses, been charged by a bear, conquered collapsing creek banks, and had bullwhips cracked off him. When the cowboy caught Howdy in a 100-acre field, he figured he’d ride to the trailer. “Howdy stood quietly while I jumped up and lay across him,” ex-cowboy said. “He seemed regular old Howdy, so I gave myself a boost and threw my leg across.”

“Howdy’s timing was perfect. With one huge buck, he sent me flying. When I got up, I was seeing stars. Howdy acted like nothing had happened, and walked back to the barn like a perfect gentleman.”

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Getting a word in...

A blog starts out as a lot of blank pages. I guess I have to start somewhere.
Why not start with geysers? After all, what are cooler than geysers?