Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

"... I determined to give it a name and in honor of Miss Maria W---d called it Maria's River.  It is true that the hue of the waters of this turbulent and troubled stream but illy comport with the pure celestial virtues and amiable qualifications of that lovely fair one; but on the other hand it is a noble river..."  -Meriwether Lewis, June 8, 1805 (The Introduction to Ride with Me, Mariah Montana)

Driving through Montana, there's a lot of time on your hands to think.  Rolling landscapes.  Enormous open sky.  Lush wilderness stretching before you like flat pages of an open book and you are passing through the seam.
"Click.  From where I was sitting on the bumper of the Winnebago I was doing my utmost to outstare that camera of hers, but as usual, no such soon as she'd shot she says as if it was something the nation was waiting to hear, 'You're not such a bad-looking old coot, you know that?'
'The old part I do, yeah.'
CLICK  Her next snap of the shutter caught me by surprise as it always did.  After all this while, why didn't I know that the real picture Mariah wanted was ever the unexpected one, the one after you'd let your guard down."  -Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

I was thinking and remembering, twenty-five years ago zig-zagging across the west with my friend Rolf in a beat-up old Honda, high on caffeine and Key-Lite, and the fumes of Kerouac and Cassidy, we stopped in to see one of his old Kansas teachers.  
"Mariah eyed me severely from the passenger seat as if about to say something, though better of it, then resumed a fixed gaze out the window." -Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

He was an older gentleman (I won't mention him by name here) with peppered white beard, drinking martini's from a thermos, sitting on the back porch and grumbling to us.  He was my friend's favorite teacher, and so he became my teacher too for that evening, and we sat at his feet like children.  
 "He paused to see how that went down with her.  I eyed her too, but with a different question in mind.  How Mariah could even entertain the notion of retying the knot with Riley was beyond me.  I mean, after our too-green marriage blew up, you could not have paid me enough to get me to marry Shirley a second time.  Talk about double jeopardy."  -Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

It's such a rare memory, for nowadays no one teaches me anything.  Oh, men still speak with authority without a doubt in their voice, but they rarely say anything of significance, and sadly for me, all my learning is finished.  
"The next thing was, I was blindsided by Mariah, hugging and kissing me and declaring I had an entire new career ahead as a public spieler.  I told her I hoped to Christ not, then held her just far enough away to gauge as I said: 'Petunia, I hope you're ending up out of all this okay.'"  -Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

But he was talking about a book, a series of books actually, written about Montana.... about driving through this vast state and watching the history of a life and a family roll along with you.  How important that was to a man in his loneliness, in his solitude, to embrace.  The book was Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, about the fictional McCaskill family and preceded by Dancing at the Rascal Fair and English Creek... and I'll spare you the: Nobody reads books anymore spiel... but I liked it.  I liked that someone could tell me something years ago, and I carried it with me all this time, and finally did something about it.   I know, it's only a book, but it was more.
"So to speak, so we were; the mountainline of the Two country up over English creek and Noon Creek that the two of us had stitched on came flapping free... dancing in the sky.  I had to chuckle at that..."  -Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

It's about coming to peace with your life, the roads you've traveled, the places you've been.  Knowing the things you pass down will be remembered by those you love most and  knowing that's all that matters.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Missoula, Montana and The Non-Intercourse Act

(Missoula, Montana is a funny name for a town.  Kind of like that person you think is weird and quirky and then you really meet them and discover they are as rich and deep and grounded as anyone you've ever known.  Yeah, Missoula is like that!)

"Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power."  -Thomas Jefferson (sixty-five years of age) looking forward to his retirement.

Relationships are tricky.  One person's push is another person's pull.  We yank. We cut our teeth on the sharp stabs of guilt.  We manipulate leverage.  We're people after all: flawed and weak, and wonderfully resilient.  Countries, on the other hand, are far more depraved.  
(Of course, you kid yourself.  You think..  I like it here.  The streets are straight and wide, the buildings are funky and old.  There are corner shops of absolute wonder and surprise and little pockets of random absurdity to discover.)

In 1804, across the Atlantic, Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, aiming to straddle the world like an Alexander Colossus.  Yet his main struggle was at sea, for only the British had a navy as powerful as the French, and must be defeated for his global conquest to be complete.  America stood in the middle, a friend to France due to their help in the Revolutionary War, but also with strong trade ties to Britain, a rocky relationship which was strained at best.  England wanted American to stop trading with France, France wanted American to stop trading with England, and both countries pirated and raided American vessels, seizing merchandise of timber, cotton, and corn, depriving American businesses of much needed income.  Diplomacy came to a halt when Britain imposed a blockade of the Atlantic coastline, hijacking American ships and sailors, and forcing them to work under British rule.
(The people you speak to in the restaurants and shops seem very well-rounded.  They bike and kayak and hike in the mountains and every bookstore you head into has an endless array of travel guides and outdoor manuals, and adventure seeker tips.)

Enter Thomas Jefferson, who in the last days of his presidency passed "The Embargo Act of 1807" which stated that no foreign ships were allowed to import or export goods to or from America. Jefferson believed this was a kind of logic that other countries would adhere to, and that U.S. patriotism would fully support his ideals of punishment and reconciliation.  Of course, it failed miserably:  Farm prices fell; ships lay idle; sailors became jobless; and smuggling ran rampant.  Embittered, Jefferson left office to retire to Monticello, alone with his thoughts.  
(Missoula is a beautiful little city in the middle of nowhere.  Isolated, yes, but strong!  The people are confident, muscular and tall, and the sky overhead is so wide and brilliantly open, that the traveler thinks... I can make a go of it here.  This is my kind of town.)

The job was then passed to James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, who passed the "Non-Intercourse Act of 1809" which reopened trade with both Britain and France but stated that the first country to agree to respect American neutrality of trade, America would immediately stop commerce with the other. 
(But... then you get back on the highway and begin to race away.  Mile after mile click off on the dial and the little buildings seem farther and farther off on the horizon.  You tell yourself... maybe I'm not coming back.  Missoula is better off without me.   I'll just love it from afar, and so, you do.)

 Napoleon, seized the opportunity, lifted restrictions, and America cut all ties with England.  For 19 months, Britain and the U.S. went without trade.  Food shortages, mounting unemployment, and inventories were lost.  With both sides suffering, on June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to vote, and war with England was declared.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Buffalo Head on the Wall at the Oxford Bar, Missoula Montana

 We arrive out of the thunderous Montana prairies dirty and dusty, our throats parched and scorched as the barren earth.  Searching the horizon for a little oasis town to quench my thirst, I found it in Missoula, Montana.
 Come on down to the Oxford Bar on North Higgens Ave to wet your whistle.
There's a buffalo head keeping the pool table honest and a nice local crowd.  As old western bars go, this one will do fine, for a guy just passing through town.

The Federalist Papers in Big Sky Montana

(Montana is called Big Sky Country for a reason)

 "Let Americans disdain to be the instruments of European greatness!  Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system."  -Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
(Driving the lush fields and vast prairies here gives you a feeling of holy inspired majesty.)

 "Why has government been instituted at all?  Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint."  -Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
(Endless rolling hills and vistas under an enormous canvas sky.  It's awe inspiring.)

 "Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?  -Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
(But of course, as breathtaking as this landscape is, and we came here to ponder the spectacular views of our country, but we also came here to read.  I've spent my life crouched on library floors or crammed upside-down and sideways on unforgiving reading chairs, straining my eyes under desk lamps or flashlights under the bed covers as a boy... but now, with my daughters, I want them to experience the same joy of reading amid the glorious landscape of our amazing country.  I want them to read in the great outdoors, to become lost in books and close their eyes and imagine, and when they open them, they are surrounded with further feast of the senses.)

 "When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation."  -Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
(The Federalist Papers, sprawled out in thunderous quotes and magnificent prose, lended itself brilliantly to this barren landscape.  Read a little, pull over... catch our breath.  Read a little, pull over... spy a family of deer or an elk or a pack of coyotes in the distance howling.  We are howling too.  You may not agree with everything Alexander Hamilton idealized, but reading these essays here are inspiring as the landscape itself.)

"Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning..."  -Hamilton, The Federalist Papers

Friday, May 19, 2017

I Don't Want to Talk About Hamilton

"I was younger than you are now when I was given my first command.  I led my men straight into a massacre, I witnessed their deaths firsthand."  -Hamilton, the Musical

We drove out of Spokane out along the back country roads saying a fond farewell to Washington State.  We're heading east into Idaho, Montana, and beyond.
"I made every mistake and felt the shame rise in me and even now I lie awake knowing history has its eyes on me."   -Hamilton, the Musical

American road trips are made for American music, and I'm no dummy.  Like lyrical juice boxes and Costco snack-packs, I've stuffed my kids so full of Chinese language tapes and Korean audio vocabulary lessons and books on tape.  Just this trip alone we've read Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Ryan's Esperanza Rising and London's Call of the Wild.... but what about music?
"Let me tell you what I wish I'd known..."  -Hamilton, the Musical

How else do you introduce your kids to Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, Ray Charles and James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and.... well pulling the car off on the roadside to take a knee while Johnny Cash sings about... the Beast in Me.
"When I was young and dreamed of glory..."  -Hamilton, the Musical

Parents need to take their time with these things.  Plan it out. Books.  Language.  Music.  Travel.  These early childhood memories are the soundtrack to a person's life, and one of the things often overlooked, or completely dominated by Disney, is the Great American musical.  Parents!  Don't sleep on Mary Poppins and West Side Story. Don't overlook Grease and Guys and Dolls, The King and I, and Singing in the Rain.  Don't pass over The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof and The South Pacific.... and certainly, without question, don't duck and weave on Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton.
"You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story." -Hamilton, the Musical

Now, I know what you're going to say.  Tickets are almost a thousand dollars and who can just fly off to New York for a show?  Even seats in my local Portland theater are off the charts... but the soundtrack is different.  Just hearing the songs of the life of Alexander Hamilton, his childhood in the Caribbean and how he ended up in New York, his rise to become George Washington's principal aide and their struggles in the Revolutionary War, his post-war legal career in New York and work on 'The Federalist Papers' and which thrust him into political life, which created allies and enemies in Adams and Madison, his affair with Maria Reynolds which ultimately destroyed his political career but not before casting the crucial vote for the Presidency that allowed Jefferson to ascend, and Burr to challenge him to a duel, the most famous duel in American history.
"I know that we can win I know that greatness lies in you..." -Hamilton, the Musical

Ah, the duel.  Hamilton and Burr meeting in the early morning in Weehawken on the New Jersey shores overlooking Manhattan.  Hamilton firing first, a shot straight into the air, and Burr, steadying his aim, landing a bullet in Hamilton's breast, killing him the following day, realizing too late that revenge cost him his place in history.  Yes, Hamilton, that musical.
"But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you."  -Hamilton, the Musical

There's a lot of music to listen to in the car, just as there are many roads one can travel down.  Although my heart is still with the Great American Musical canon, allowing a new one to enter is just fine with me.  Cruising through Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and into Montana, singing along with Hamilton... I'm still smiling.

Don't Want to Learn What I'll Need to Forget

 "I walk the streets of Japan till I get lost
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

Took a break from the road, headed up into Central Washington for some rest and much needed time with a friend on their ranch.
 "With a graveyard tan an' carrying a cross
It doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

I have good friends.
 "I like studying faces in a parking lot
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

Watched the sunset over the Cascades, sat up most of the night talking.
"I like travelin' backwards in the fog
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

Then rose early in the house, found an old book on the shelf, and sat in the sunlight reading.
 "I like gospel music and canned applause
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

I know, it's not American lit, but it's an old friend... and sometimes old friends pop up again in your life and you have to account for them.  You have to remember because they are a part of you.
 "I like hammering nails, and speaking in tongues
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything..." -Cornell

You can run through the table of contents of their stories, a track list of memories, some good or bad, hilarious, foolish, painful, etched in your memory, or cracked deep upon a broken heart.  
"I like throwing my voice and breaking guitars
'Cause it doesn't remind me of anything
I like playing in the sand what's mine is ours
If it doesn't remind me of anything." -Cornell

I was thinking about that today.  I got the text at 4 a.m. of Chris Cornell's passing.  Usually these things don't affect me... but all that history... and of course,  'There but for the grace of God go I'.   I'm just very grateful to be sitting here today,  with songs in my heart, looking out over this marvelous view, surrounded by friends.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Spokane, Washington and Who were the Federalists

(Radio Flyer Park in Downtown Spokane, Washington.)

As I drive through the American West with my daughters studying history and literature, (Yes, I pulled them out of school to road trip and read books with me) we come to the Federalists.  What's a Federalist? You ask.... Oh, you came to the right place.
(Spokane is an amazing little city.  A quaint and perfect downtown.)

You see... Once Upon a Time, America was this wonderful fairy tale land full of political unicorns riding on rainbows and everyone wore a fancy wig and life was grand!  We dumped our tea in the harbor, kicked out the Redcoats, and were rocking with a brand spanking new Constitution.  Then the dude on the ten dollar bill, Alexander Hamilton, came and ruined it.  
(There is a waterfall and cable car and an old west feel.)

Hamilton formed the Federalist Party whose believers aimed for a strong centralized government.  This of course meant more taxes (Boo!) but helped pay for roads, bridges, and public schools (Yeah!).  It also brought a National Bank (Yikes!) and closer ties to Britain (More Tea!).  He was opposed by Thomas Jefferson (I'm on the nickel, ya'll!  Guess we aren't all created equal!) who formed another new political party called, get this, the Democratic Republicans!  Confused yet?  Right!
(I drove all night from Portland to be in Spokane at sunrise.)

One of the aforementioned unicorns in a wig that opposed this two party system was GEORGE FREAKIN' WASHINGTON!  He thought two political parties would cause great division in our country and that the Constitution's Right to Freedom of Speech and Assembly would be abused (he couldn't tell a lie). He wasn't far off!
(Standing here overlooking the bridge... thinking about the American West.)

This played out in the election of 1796 where Federalist John Adams (played by a smoldering Paul Giamatti, "No F-ing, Merlot!") narrowly defeated Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson (played by a whiny Stephen Dillane of House Baratheon).  Northern States voted for Adams, Southern for Jefferson, it didn't take Miss Cleo the Fortune Teller to predict a Civil War on the horizon.  
(I'm heading into Big Sky Country.)

The Democratic Republicans believed in small government and pro-state power (which naturally becomes your party if you think the government is coming for your slaves).  Four years later, Jefferson defeated Adams due to an electoral college screw-up (we still have the electoral-college?) in which slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person in the census (which increased the population) but were not allowed to actually vote.  So... Jefferson wins!  Hamilton is later shot in a duel (I heard something about a musical... but I don't have $2,000 for a ticket), and we ended up with a two party system whether we wanted it or not.  
(Crossroads in Montana... which way to go?)

Of course, all of this is just history.  None of it really matters in the current freak and clown game show we're witnessing everyday in our current system... and I don't want to talk politics.  But I do want to talk about the West.  The American West has always meant a new start.  A hopeful grab at possibility.  People race toward the future, but I've always looked into the past to understand and guide me.  The mistakes made at intersecting lives and lines and their ripple effects.  These stories make the west what it is, the map of the American heart.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Whitman, Song of the Open Road

 "Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose."  -Whitman, Song of the Open Road.

We pack up old Princess Sparkleface and head-out at midnight east from Portland, through the Gorge, then north to Spokane, following the rising sun.
 "Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complains, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road."  -Whitman, Song of the Open Road

I'm not sure if there's any greater feeling than driving through the night with your kids asleep in the backseat, heading for some far away dot on a map.
 "The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them." -Whitman, Song of the Open Road

I was throwing around possible names of Loop#2 of our American Travel with my girls: The Badlands; North Rockies; The Great Plains; Lewis and Clark Trail, The Oregon Trail... but finally we settled with just: The American West.
"Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return."  -Whitman, Song of the Open Road

The American West has always meant a kind of hope.  A second chance.  A way of restarting your life.  Layers upon layers of stories of people from all corners of the world arriving in search of something deep inside they hope will come true.  Traveling through the night, thinking of Whitman, watching my girls curled up in sleeping bags in the back seat, I'm hoping too.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Meriwether Lewis, but not Farewell.

"I am not a coward, but I am so strong.  So hard to die."  -Last words of Meriwether Lewis

I'm having a hard time saying goodbye to Lewis.  I would sit up late and night and read his journal:  Cold bitter winds.  Pelting rain.  Waking up with frost on his body.  Lost in the woods.  Wandering blindly through knee deep snow.  Sending men out into the wilderness to hunt and bring back game not knowing if they'd ever return.  All the while... scribbling, observing, pushing forward.  The suicide of Meriwether Lewis is a part of the story we don't teach our kids... we just open the door to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and Crazy Horse and the American West, but the man that led us there first, still whispers from the mountains and trees.  At least, he does to me.

Sunset at Waikki Beach Cape Disappointment

Cape Disappointment was named by fur trader John Mears in 1788.  (Yes! That's before the Constitution!) He had sailed south from Nootka in search of trade and turned back during a violent storm just missing the discovery of the Columbia River.  Four years later, George Vancouver credits Mears with the name "Cape Disappointment" in 1792.
Waikiki Beach received its name when a Hawaiian sailor's body washed ashore after his ship was wrecked in a failed attempt to cross the Columbia River bar in 1811.
Of course, as my kids and I camp here with friends, I couldn't help think about Lewis and Clark and their wintering here near Fort Clatsop... and the weird mix of sadness yet jubilation that beach stirs inside your hear.  
Walking along this lonesome stretch of sand, so far from home, far from the destinations that await...  watching the sun fall over the Pacific, it weighs heavy inside.
What the Corps of Discovery must have thought .... walking this same beach.  Hunting for game.  Trading with the local Indians.  Watching these logs wash ashore and looking out at the horizon wondering.... what is out there?  And more profoundly, however will we make it back home?
We sat around the campfire that night... after hiking and playing and fort building... with our thick coats and headlamps and roasted marshmallows... laughing and giggling.  Life is good this way.  We turn from disappointment and follow the rising sun east.