At 5:13 on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, I stir. It’s about 45 degrees. Let’s dive directly into a techno-snippet: how do I know such details, especially nearly a year after this alleged stirring occurred? Was it that I took meticulous notes? No. Do I have the snappiest memory in the land? Not anymore. Is it the depth of data that my loyal Garmin 920XT watch communicates to the app on my phone? Yes. (Please consult Figures 19.19.a and 19.19.b.)
Like a flash I flip-flop over to the toilet to take a piss and then dive back into my tent musing about how well I slept and contemplating the day ahead, which will bring me to Great Falls. There I’ll recharge with a couple nights of blogging in the comfort of an air-conditioned Airbnb while the rest of the country enjoys the Fourth of July in more typical ways like flag-waving, mass consumption of hot dogs, and blowing shit up. If you’re feeling extra-patriotic or extra patriotically-challenged, check out my Fourth of July post from Handlebar Confessional (2009): Day 54 – Happy Birthday, America! (You’re Cute and All But I’m Not Ready for the ‘L’-Word). Last night, the mountainy temps necessitated wearing mostly everything in my panniers and zipping up the sleeping bag most of the way. My one pair of long pants (gray), a graying t-shirt that used to be black, arm warmers and my gray wool sweater. The morning sky is also gray. We seem to be working monochromatism this AM.
I have no caffeine on my person/Whitey and hope the moderately-appointed poo excreted in the park facilities is sufficient until I get to Fort Benton in a couple of hours. There’s nothing but wheat fields and the Big Sky between Geraldine and Fort Benton. Even though cars are few and far between, I’d rather not have to drop the kids off on the road when they belong in the pool. Dig?
The Adventure Cycling map indicates there’s interesting tourist stuff going on in Fort Benton, as it has significant Lewis and Clark history. Once again, since we parted ways near Bismarck, North Dakota, I’ll meet the Missouri River and be back on L&C’s actual route. Fort Benton is one of those places that Emily suggested I try to spend a bit of time exploring history and stuff, but oh well. My briefly adhered-to intention to read, at another of Em’s suggestions, Undaunted Courage in real-time as I make my own Lewis and Clark expedition fizzled away long ago. I only recently got to the part where they are building the pirogues* to lug most of their shit up the Missouri. They haven’t even taken off yet.
*Yeah, I never heard this word either. Basically, the Corps of Discovery, aka Lewis and Clark and their men (plus Sacajawea for a period), in addition to the main boat and several dugout canoes, had two cargo rowboats with sails each rowed by six men carrying as many as eight tons of cargo. Those luggers are pirogues.
Won’t be stopping long in Fort Benton – but am hoping for something eggy and pancakey and bacony during my brief visit. I don’t even want to think about how many days in a row I’ve eaten beef and/or pork, but when in Rome… . There’s a yogurt in my rack pack that seems ok (thanks to the refrigerating weather and not giving any fucks) and a Clif bar. Should fuel the 25 miles to FB.
On the road just before 7am. At 48 degrees, I’m wearing my wool leggings, arm warmers, and “storm” jacket. And both pairs of bike shorts. Even after 2,700 miles on this dastardly Brooks saddle whose website boasts ‘a sure preventive to all perineal pressure’, I’m still doubling down by doubling up on the extra padding. My taint’s fine, so I can’t accuse Brooks of false advertising, but the leather still hasn’t softened enough to cushion that bone that’s way deep in my glutes. Yeah, yeah, I know how that sounds…
Speaking of butts, or buttes, here’s Square Butte again. I should change the tagline of this blog to ‘Wherever I go, there is Square Butte…wtf?’ I never can seem to get away from it. The US Forest Service refers to Square Butte as an ‘intrusive laccolith,’ which seems a bit rudely overstated. I mean, I wouldn’t describe it as ‘intrusive,’ per se, just…omnipresent. And it’s still my only friend out here in the unforgiving West. After two straight days, me and Squee Bee are like an old married couple. A marriage of convenience. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em! Wait, whaaa? First those gays want to marry each other. Now some nutty fruit from California wants to marry Square Butte? #SlipperySlope
Several miles outside of Geraldine there’s an interpretive area with a vista of my newly- and shotgun-weddingly-betrothed laccolith spouse and a few informational panels discussing its geological provenance, as well as offering up a theory of the provenance of ‘Geraldine’ (the town)—either the wife or daughter of William Rockefeller who turned Montana into a mining mecca. You can bet neither mother nor daughter G-dine ever set foot in their namesake town. I do, however, have two otherwise irrelevant songs I love entitled Geraldine to recommend to cleanse the palate of the nasty taste of appropriating the lands of other cultures to exponentially expand the wealth of a single family…the descendants of which do ‘give back’ quite a bit, admittedly… John Grant’s Geraldine and Glasvegas’s Geraldine.
The rest of the ride to Fort Benton is not too windy and somewhat hilly, culminating with a downhill coast to the Missouri River. (Squee Bee is in my rearview now. Sometimes things just don’t work out. There are other buttes in the sea, however.) The town is off-route 0.3 miles and I spur west across the river and into this charmer of a town.
As expected, I am ravenous. It’s just past 9:30. There’s definitely abundant brekky to be had here. I can smell it. Not literally, but I feel it in my bones. I pedal down Front Street looking for someone to advise me. There’s a hardware store! I jump off Whitey and head in to ask the locals where I can feed. The two women who work there pause at my question. One suggests—perhaps with a touch of snide—“Wake Up?”
The other rolls her eyes and pulls an ick face, “Nah.”
Instead, they send me back around the corner to a sports bar. “Yeah, the food’s real good there.”
I get back on Whitey and pull into the nearly empty lot behind the bar. I creak open the screen door. A bartender is cleaning up after last night’s revelry. She tells me they’re only open for breakfast on weekends and points me right back to where I came from, to the Wake Up Coffee House, which is house in a brick-faced building about a hundred feet from the hardware store. It’s quaint, wooden tables, it’s got a handsome espresso bar stacked with fresh baked goods, ample menu, it’s crowded on a Monday. Why the fuck would those black-hat ladies not send me to this place?! There must be some Western soap-operatic bad blood. Should I stir the pot? Tell the server: Hey, just so you know… the ladies at TrueValue threw shade your way, told me breakfast was much better at a sports bar that isn’t even serving it for the next five days. …What business of it is mine? None. I’m just riding through and ‘Respect’ is my middle name, if you’re hearin’ me right. And then just sit back and watch the showdown in the street…
Instead of agitating what is a palpably multi-centuries-long McCoys-vs-Hatfields-level feud, I order my first Americano in yonks. I keep ELATION BEYOND ALL GET-OUT at this turn of events (namely, nice food as opposed to bar food) on the downlow. With the espresso, I order an omelet with bacon AND SPINACH. And hash browns and toast. And a side of hotcakes. Though it’s not offered on the menu, I’m tempted to ask for real maple syrup but again choose the when-in-Rome path, not wanting to further tempt my capacity to be chill in what is a potentially earth-shattering episode, such as consumption of a full breakfast. I don’t want to call attention to myself. Real maple syrup would be too fucking much right now. I might SCREAM. Overwhelming. For everyone involved.
The food is good, though the spinach in the omelet isn’t really cooked. And when I say ‘not really cooked,’ I mean raw. This is strange. Maybe it’s a Montana thing? I must ask Em. (Later, I do ask her, and she snorts, saying it’s probably the first time anyone ever ordered that. But captivatingly, raw spinach is photographically featured on the café’s menu online! Don’t believe me? Check it out, Hyperbole Police: uncooked spinach omelet.) In the bathroom, I take a selfie, the first of several that will be my Public Bathroom Series that continues today. Intermittently. (I think I’ve posted two now. So far.)
It’s warm out when I’m done feeding and I shed the extra layers. Fifty or so miles to go to get to Great Falls. Whitey and I cross back over the Missouri and start the long, slow climb from town onto Highwood Road which blasts through breathtaking cliffs rising from the river and surrounding creeks ‘n coulees. Lewis and Clark and Co. must’ve been like, Holymuthafreakinshit, cuz that’s what I’m like. Magnificence.
Highwood Road becomes Big Sag Road. With Big Sag comes a big sag in the weather. We’ve climbed over 1,200 feet; it’s colder again and completely clouded over. Nonverbally the cows are communicating: Rain’s a-comin’.
“Really? No way! …Really?” I say aloud to the cows. No response. Ahh! I get it. I try the nonverbal: How much rain?
There’s a collective bovine shrug as they lower their heads to continue their grass-munching.
I’m over halfway there now as I coast down a steep hill marking the end of the post-Fort Benton climb. The sky seems positively engorged now, as it continues to darken. It doesn’t feel threatening like the storm a few days back as I approached Jordan and was rescued by Bonnie the Farmer/Kindergarten Teacher, but it’s stressful, not knowing when and how much and for how long.
When the rain starts, it’s a relief. Both the sky and I are bathed in relief… and rain. It’s just easier on everyone to get the inclement weather going so we can all move on with our lives, know what we’re dealing with. Me, the sky, the cows, and…that’s it. That’s everyone, now that Squee Bee’s gone.
The cows weren’t clowning. It’s not a light rain. The harder it falls, the giddier I become. It’s been a while since I sang out loud, and I do so with operatic gusto. I bring back an old standard from waaaay back in South Dakota: “THE RAIN IN SPAIN FALLS MAINLY IN THE GRRRRREAT PLAY-YAINS!” I’m not sure if I’m technically still in the Great Plains, but a standard’s a standard. Near the town of Highwood (census pop. 176, visible pop. 0), I come upon a gravel portion of the highway that wasn’t noted on the map, so it must be in the middle of construction? There are no signs, no vehicles. It’s pouring, it’s gravel, it’s a steep hill, upward, into the wind. Could life be any better?
The rain persists. Lots of it for the next 25 miles until I am just a few miles outside of Great Falls. Just plain old precipitation without the bells and whistles of previous storms I’ve been caught in, i.e., thunder/lightning, hail, high winds. I am wet and cold, but this is better than oppressive heat any day and certainly less death-defying. (See here for heatstroke-ish episode in South Dakota). I can be gloriously satisfying riding in an unrelenting downpour. The wetter and colder I get, the more joyful I feel. And to be honest, I feel some pride, too. Pride in being able to withstand discomfort. Pride in my willingness to absorb this experience, its wildness, its unpredictability. Pride in being able to accept reality, to surrender to the things I cannot change. Such perspective, such insight!, does not happen during a drizzle.
When I arrive in Great Falls, my phone which has been dead af since Lewistown pling!s to life. I can check my Airbnb messages now and get the specific directions to the Brantleys’ place. Great Falls looks like Anywhere, U.S.A.—in terms of the plethora of fast food and big box stores and the leafiness and lawns and bricks and lawns and lawnmowers and green grass in front of houses and sprinklers and lawns and lawnmowers and people riding around on tractory lawnmowers and pushing oldtimey lawnmowers and bent over stalled lawnmowers and cussing them out and wishing they’d invent a Lawn-Cutting Roomba. Did I mention the grassy green lawns? It’s nice to be in a place where (I am assuming, despite a few sprinklers) there is enough precipitation to keep it all going, unlike Los Angeles where green grass is an AFFRONT TO OUR VERY SOULS, as it is a giant waste of water and completely the invasive contrary to the indigenous order of the flora there. And don’t get me started on my Anti-Golf-Course Rant. Considering it’s July 3, houses and businesses are festooned with red-white-and-blue paraphernalia.
The Brantleys’ immediate neighborhood is aw-shucks nice, elegant even with its grand trees and brick houses. They live right across the street from a high school. I pedal Whitey into the alley behind their house and carefully press the code on the key pad, half-expecting to set off an alarm/half-wanting to, so I can write about in the blog. Which I am doing anyway, even though the garage door rumbles open without a siren wailing, revealing…one of the most gleaming spaces to which I have ever been a witness. Whitey is quite muddy, and I hesitate to roll him in. Our entrée into this space will render the floor unable to eat a meal upon which is exactly what one wants to attempt in a such a setting as this.
Jason greets me at the gate, asks me about the day’s ride. I reiterate that I’ll be taking off early on the fifth. At that moment, Jason communicates that we’re on the same team. (Not that team). With a telling dose of snark, he says, “Aw, you’re leaving before our president gets here on Thursday!” Say what?! I have to stop myself from hugging him. Even before my cycling gloves come off, I don’t need to worry about taking off the proverbial ones. He tells me that he and his wife Ali are more-or-less the Democrat unicorns in their immediate neighborhood and that in 2016 the green lawns around here were rife with Trump/Pence signs.
“I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone progressive until I got to Missoula,” I say. I tell him about seeing the storefront campaign office for U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s reelection in Glendive and wishing it was open, just to take a breather from splinting every political bone in my body. We chat for several more minutes, expressing our shared disgust for the ‘kids in cages’/family separation phenomenon at the border that is the divisive and terrifying/terrified/terrorizing issue of the moment. “Well, at least those Thai boys were found alive in the cave,” Jason says. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Unlike in Real Life, I’m blithely ignorant of much of the day’s news.
Jason offers to drive me to Safeway so I can grab foodstuffs, or to let me take his truck. His truck, incidentally, is a GARGANTUAN apparatus, top of the tire is at hip-level practically. At least that’s my memory of it. My watch did not record this data. I guess the truck size is normal for a guy who flies commercial airplanes. And Montana normal. He also invites me to dinner. ‘Do you like salmon?’ I love salmon. But I’m not prepared for the sort of experience where I’ll have to talk to people. It’s airbnb.com, not warmshowers.org.
…What the fuck, Danny? Just yesterday, you were melancholy, lonely. Even this morning you were having some reverie about a butte being your only friend in the world. Now someone is inviting me to break bread with them in their lovely home, just show up and eat, and I’m hesitating. Honestly, my reluctance is mostly about feeling like I need to get straight to work on the blog, rather than mere social anxiety. I hem and haw a bit, and he generously offers to let me think about it. After all the intensive training during my weeks in the Midwest (and years in Narcotics Anonymous), I should be better at accepting people’s help, or at least their darn friendliness and hospitality. And seriously, I just rode a full day, lots of climbs, and rain and wind – Oh. Come. On. Like you’re really going to write tonight. I bargain: You can get yourself to Safeway, but you say yes to dinner. Deal? Deal.
At 7, I make my way across the yard. The decision is a wise one. This evening proves to be one of the most enjoyable of the trip.
Jason and Ali are…how do I say this without—? Oh, fuck I’m just gonna say it cuz I think it, and that’s that: they are such the Perfect (White) American Couple. I don’t know anyone like them, so, based on that, it’s incongruous to be using such a cliché for people who are so unique to me. I know it’s so frowned-upon these days, not ‘p.c.’ (ugh, I can’t believe I’m using that term) to comment one someone’s physical attractiveness but…you sometimes gotta call it out. The picture speaks for itself, right? They’re glowing, right?
Jason is ginger, handsome and funny, my age-ish and in great shape, retired Air Force, commercial pilot and real estate smarty-pants. Ali is pretty and blonde, so lovely and warm, a hometown girl whose parents, like a lot of Montanans (despite what the average Angeleno might assume… or I might assume), were very tolerant live-and-let-live people. She’s a nurse, a second career for her; she used to be a teacher. (Coincidentally, I am benefiting right now from Ali’s second career choice. After she went back to school to become a nurse, she had to work nights at first so they built the apartment I’m staying in, so she could sleep unbothered by kids.)
The Brantleys have one of those homes that was open and welcoming to their kids’ friends, and being right across the street from the high school…well, there ya go. My dad grew up like that. The small apartment he lived in as a kid in was Grand Central Station, or the Philly version of that chestnut. My grandparents were fantastic people, very loved, known to one and all as Rosie and Jake, even to the younger generations. Rosie in particular loved having her sons’ friends over. She was very social, worked outside the home, was an avid card player. Despite how my father grew up, an open and welcoming home wasn’t my experience at all. That was my mother’s need (her capacity to engage was minimal due to her mental health), not my father’s preference. An open home environment has always been fascinating to me, and sort of fantastical. Speaking of homes, this is the detail that takes the cake in terms of the Brantleys’ storybook story: when Ali was a little girl growing up in Great Falls, she dreamed of living in this very house, a handsome two-story brick with huge fir trees and a backyard that seems like half an acre—and then she did! You can’t write this stuff; it just writes itself.
And their relationship origin story has a funky and off-the-wall yet sweet element to it: They were talking after having just been introduced, and Jason absentmindedly reached into the lower-leg pocket of his flight suit and pulled out…a hard-boiled egg. It was left over from his early morning flight’s boxed lunch. He didn’t want to waste it, might get hungry later. Ali thought it was unusual—and, I guess, charming—for a guy to carry around hard boiled eggs.
Jason grew up right across the Mississippi from Baton Rouge, in Port Allen, Louisiana, an African American-majority town of about 6,000. Port Allen, like most of the Deep South, ferociously resisted the desegregation of schools even decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) became the law of the land, and integration was meant to occur ‘with all deliberate speed,’ as per the Supreme Court ruling. Yeah, right. Port Allen Schools were forced to integrate in 1973. At that time, there were separate senior proms for black and white students. Instead of allowing the integration of an annual dance, white students created what they called ‘Club 73’ and had their own whites-only events. Jason’s high school class, late 80s, I believe, was the first to have an integrated dance.
This is the first night in a looooooong time (relatively) I’ve felt totally and completely free to be myself. Eleven days—has it only been ELEVEN DAYS?—since I was with Mi and Kelly, the only queer-identified people I’ve met thus far (…yes, yes, you never know but…). I surely felt comfortable with Hannie and Marius, the Dutch couple I met in Winnett a few days ago and spent an hour or two chatting with. But this was different. This was letting it all hang out over a meal in someone’s home. Like I say above, historically, this openness has characterized the Brantley home. Their daughter is one of those kids who was friends with her high school classmates who were unconventional. Jason described his household as a place where those kids felt really comfortable being. “We had all types and genders and every color of hair dye here.”
His story of the genesis of his support for LGBTQ equality is quite pithy. It was when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was being debated in Congress, before Clinton signed it into law. He was still in the Air Force, and his future mother-in-law challenged him as to why he wasn’t supportive of the policy: “Why not? Why would it matter to you?”
Jason answered with a typical, “I don’t want all these guys staring at me in the shower.”
Ali’s mother was not having that. “Do you think that every woman is staring at you?”
“No,” Jason replied.
That was that.
Ali, Jason and I talk a lot about politics and the awkwardness, or outright feelings of disappointment, betrayal and rage that accompany family and friends with differing views, especially in the current us-against-them discourse. I tell them that I am mostly free from having to be challenged like that. Except for my dad and stepmom (Joss and Iris) whom I just visited in Pennsylvania (they are Trumpers) and my brother-in-law Larry who’s more of an independent and one cousin (I wrote about our mutual acceptance in Day 40), pretty much all my family members are progressive, and I’m absent anyone day-to-day who leans conservative. Some believe that’s an undesirable way to live one’s life, like we should all be courting situations where our beliefs and values are challenged by others who think and feel differently—especially, one might say, for someone like me who pays ‘lip service’ (ugh, I hate that phrase, please don’t let me use it ever again in print) to valuing diversity and empathy. This journey has been an opportunity for me to engage with humans whose beliefs are dissimilar from my own—but there’s a difference between forging a connection with these folks I’m meeting and having a policy debate. And I’m not planning on moving to the suburban Midwest where people are split right down the middle. I prefer to get my diversity fix in other ways.
I don’t talk politics with my father. I don’t know if I ever really did. It’s too painful. Natalie ends up engaging politically with our dad more than I do, not least because he sees Larry as an ally and because she works for the federal government which came up plenty during the Obama administration. I know that Joss and I do have some overlapping views (for instance, he’s pretty libertarian regarding drug policy and definitely views addiction as a health issue rather than a moral one), but the first time I remember a hardcore division about a particular issue was also the first time I ever heard my dad use the word ‘cunt’— as one of many descriptors he reserved for First Lady Hillary Clinton when she was the face of health care reform in 1993. I didn’t really discuss the issue with him then (just listened to him blast Hillary), because a) he believed that passage of the law would impact him professionally and financially, and I felt simultaneously dubious about that and sad for him because what if it did affect him horribly? and also conflicted because why should I care about my father’s professional and financial wellbeing more than the wellbeing of millions of people without access to health care? and b) at that time I certainly did not have the capacity to discuss health policy, and c) I am fiercely avoidant, especially when I don’t 100% know all the facts and can’t 100% self-righteously declare myself the winner of a political argument. Considering I graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz in 1993, my self-righteous indignation was likely at a lifetime high round about then. Or maybe it topped the charts a few years earlier when I was visiting my parents during the summer. A couple I was friends with were traveling in the U.S. from England, and I invited them to my mother and father’s house. (My parents were still mind-bogglingly married to each other at that time.) I remember very defensively, provokingly, arrogantly telling Joss: “Just so you know, they’re…LESBIANS!” And then waiting for a response, saying nothing. Daring him to say something about it, to reject them (and ME) outright, to counter his idealized childhood where his home was open to one and all. As fun as it is to hindsightedly tease my twenty-year-old self’s liberal snowflakiness, this incident actually is on point. I wasn’t out as gay (I identified as bisexual around then—but only to a few people, not my family), and I hadn’t knowingly been in the presence of other LGBTQ people and my parents simultaneously, before that visit. I knew my mother would be okay with my being gay (she had said as much years before…that’s a whole other story…), but I knew my father would be very disappointed, perhaps angry, and would find it difficult to accept. (At this point, I didn’t accept it, and it’s proving to be a lifelong process.) The fear of being rejected for who you are and what you believe by those who are meant to love you unconditionally is powerful shit, especially at twenty. The political differences I have with my father and my resistance to chatting about them with him are still, at fifty, tied to that fear of rejection of me—at least partially. Natalie and I often ruminate together at how our father’s values seem to be so different from ours and how that gap is widening. How could a father vote with a party that has a vested interest in restricting his son’s human and civil rights? But then, is that a sort of adolescent self-centered way of looking at the world? Why should a son’s individual rights be more important than his old man’s professional and financial stability? I’m not living my life for my dad, so why should he be living his for me?
My incredibly bright and witty cousin Rob, who tragically removed himself from this earth in 2013, worked in Washington, D.C. (for Rahm Emmanuel when he was a congressman, among other jobs) his whole adult life—and constantly busted my dad’s balls about his right-leaning politics. Seriously, except for a semi-accidental conversation or two, for 20 years or so, I knew more about my own father’s views through his nephew than from discussions I had with him myself. One such incident occurred during a phone call with Joss a few months before the 2008 presidential election. He spoke admiringly about Barack Obama and said something to the effect that this country now belonged to the younger generations and that he wasn’t going to stand in their way of change. Something like that. I remember thinking, Wow, something is shifting, but the next time we spoke wasn’t long after Sarah Palin cited Alaska’s proximity to the border of Russia as her foreign policy bona fides. I was shocked that he expressed high regard for her, and he admonished me for my hasty dismissiveness of her. I’m sorry (aka not sorry), but Palin is a complete idiot. I cut the conversation short. We agreed to disagree, certainly disagreeably on my part. I mean, Sarah Palin,seriously?! I clearly remember that it was just before 9am, and I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of my lefty nonprofit job in Santa Monica. Perfect. “Well, I’m here at work. I gotta go.” It turned out that Joss wasn’t going to be voting with his granddaughter in mind either, or any future generations.
Ah, remember the innocent days of 2008? When racism and xenophobia seemed like they might be headed toward extinction? Now my dad listens to AM talk radio and watches Fox News like it’s actual news. Same with Iris. During the same visit days before I took off on this bike trip, my stepmother’s brother Felix who was also in Pennsylvania staying with them told me, “Your father brainwashed my sister.”
“I know!” I heartily agreed. When Joss and Iris met, she had a Pomeranian named Hillary (yes, after that c***). (I can’t say it twice. I just can’t.) Unlike me, Felix was not shy about raising politics with my father and his sister. It was lighthearted until, when talking about Trump’s government’s lack of response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Iris referred to the island’s inhabitants as “those people.” Felix and Iris are 100% boricua, born on the island and raised in Brooklyn.
“Whaddaya mean ‘those people’?” Felix pressed her. He was surprised and pissed.
Iris quickly told us that she meant the Dominicans who were ‘illegal’ Puerto Rico. That’s who she meant. Oh, riiiiight, the darker-skinned people who are snapping up resources, stealing jobs, committing crimes. Familiar ring, that. But as the conversation continued, Iris seemed to be agreeing with Felix and me that the people of Puerto Rico had been shafted post-Maria, and pre-Maria in terms of debt and failing infrastructure that is not the fault of ordinary Puerto Ricans. [The long I take to write these entries, the more things don’t stay the same. Yesterday, that corrupt bro-bastard Governor Roselló said adios y buena suerte to the people. #Renunciado]
“You’re saying the same thing as we are,” Felix said. “You’re changing your story now!” She was running out of Fox News tropes to argue with. I could see her gears spinning, sifting through the File-of-Alterna-Facts.
I offered, “Blink twice if you’re trapped in there and my dad and Fox are holding you against your will!”
Iris mockingly blinked many times. “Help me! Help!” We all had a good laugh. she yelled. My father didn’t participate in the conversation, but he did laugh.
Back in Montana, Jason and his son aren’t seeing eye-to-eye politically either. While his daughter is liberal like her parents, Jason expressed concern about his son’s views. It wasn’t about party politics, per se, but his son’s reactionary response to #MeToo and the surge of support for women and the women’s movement in the age of Trump. “He is following a lot of that ‘men’s rights movement’ shit,” Jason said. His son is watching anti-feminist YouTube videos and reading online content claiming that men are unfairly targeted, that we are the real victims. “It’s disturbing.”
I am duly disturbed.
Ali is less bothered about her son’s political inclinations and online habits than Jason. She’s attributing it to his age (which I gather is about twenty) and finding his own way in the world. “He’ll be fine.” Jason isn’t having it, though. I can tell he’s worried. Or maybe I’m projecting. But what can any of us do? As it turned out, my father had zero influence on my politics.
The food is great. Salmon and asparagus. Salad. Potatoes. Perfect post-ride meal. The Brantleys are drinking wine, which I politely decline. Like I said, I’m comfortable with these folks, so I give them a brief rundown of the past six years: leaving a job because it had been making me sick with daily panic attacks, my drug addiction, rehab, recovery, career change, bringing my novel from the embryonic stage to nascent first draft, relapse, breakup of my long-term partnership with Donny, my relationship with Carlos, him getting shot several times during a robbery (and surviving), other relapses, another breakup, more writing, more recovery. Not necessarily in that order. So, yeah, no wine for me. I forgot (in 11 days) that I can be quite open/bordering on TMI. Jason has family history with addiction; he lost his brother to it.
We wrap up about 10:30pm. It’s just gotten dark, and it’s past my bedtime. For the Fourth, Jason is driving up to their house on a lake north of Great Falls somewhere. After hearing my story about riding the ATV at the Jacksons’ ranch a few days before and my utter thrill, he invites me up to spend the weekend at the lake. “Have you ever ridden a jet ski?” (Or, that question might have been, “Have you ever jet-skied?” Not up on lingo specifics.) I have not, but fresh off the ATV, Jason’s right to assume that I’m dying to. He’s leaving in the morning, and Ali will follow him up after her shift at the hospital later on. Oh god oh god oh god. I really want to spend more time with them—and jet ski—but writing calls. It’s hard to say no, but I manage it, despite Jason’s persistence, which I really do appreciate. [Ironically, my persistence at keeping up with writing and posting these essays really fell away post-return to LA and Real Life. I could have gone. But what’s done is done.]
In the morning, I decide I’m going to go for a run down to see these Great Falls—I mean, I’m here, aren’t I?—and quickly learn from Jason that they aren’t a single ‘set’ (is that what they’re called?) of falls. There’s five. Oh. And they aren’t clumped together conveniently for a quick been-there-done-that tourist run. Oh. The biggest set, cleverly named Big Falls, is about 10 miles down the Missouri from here. Oh. It’s only about a mile and a half each way to the river where I can view the nearest of the five, Black Eagle Falls, in go-there-do-that fashion and turn around and have the whole day left to write about stuff that happened weeks ago in Iowa. I figure I can enjoy a low-key three-miler, even on tired legs that haven’t run on in well over a month. Jason gives me directions verbally which I doubt will stick in my head, so I carry my phone. Up here at well over 3,000 feet, the morning air is cool enough to wear my Griffith Park Dope Pedallers long-sleeved jersey (designed by my great friend Peter who also designed my Handlebar Confessional logo), though it will climb up to the 90s later on.
My legs are stubborn, unforgiving, sort of like running on freshly hewn tree stumps, worsened by not finding Jason’s perfectly direct route down to River’s Edge Trail and adding an extra ten minutes to an already stubby run.
The falls themselves are a disappointment. I was expecting to be bowled over. The view of Black Eagle Falls is industrial with hydroelectric dams uglifying what must have been a strikingly gorgeous and scary (in terms of navigation) sight for Lewis and Clark (like I said earlier, I’m soooo not at that part of the book). The expedition’s members were the first white men, and first black man (York, Clark’s slave, remember we are talking like 1806) to see the falls. Native peoples had a break from white people for a while until the fur trappers descended a couple of decades later. Then the industrialists came and ‘tamed’ these Great Falls. Being from New Jersey, you don’t often have the opportunity for a hometown nature brag, but the Great Falls on the Passaic River in Paterson, right where I’m from, are way more impressive than what I saw of these ones. When a waterway in North Jersey is prettier than one in Montana, one would be remiss to leave that unreported.
I spend the next two days in the comfort of the Brantleys’ loft apartment, writing mostly about my time in Des Moines and Lake City visiting my various native Iowan friends’ parents, catching up with people on the phone (Flint, Donny, Heather, Kate) and text (everyone else), and watching several Handmaids Tale episodes with Great Falls fireworks blasting in the background, adding unnecessary tension to my experience of June’s plight. Since the writing is going well but slowly and I’m trying to have a somewhat relaxed smell-the-flowers experience, I check in with Jason about crashing another night. He generously offers me the place free of charge. I text Em, alerting her that I am pushing off my arrival in Missoula by another day, and she uses the opportunity to demand I attend the Trump rally.
I have no intention of going. True, it would be interesting blog fodder, but I know I can’t stomach a celebration of White Supremacy and “lock her up” chants and obsessing over “Pocahontas”. However, I am ultimately not immune to experiencing the rally’s, er, charms. On Rally Day, I run a couple errands. While doing so, I’m trying to come up with something catchy to rhyme with “Great Balls of Fire!” ya know, for an Instagram post, as ya do. Great Falls of…Desire. Omg stupid. Great Falls of Fire(works). That’s beyond a stretch. Great Falls of Bald-faced Liar. Of boldfaced Liar. Preaching to the Choir. Ugh. These all suck. As I’m exiting CVS, a woman charges toward me flailing. “I stood in that line all day! I had a ticket, and I STILL didn’t get in!” She’s pissed off. Throws me the we both know it’s a Conspiracy look. I recoil. Her appearance is the pinnacle of cultural specificity: if Ann Coulter (minus the Connecticut breeding, sunscreen and botox) fucked a Nutcracker soldier, made an old-lady baby, and dressed it up in a costume meant for Uncle Sam’s Ice Capades. “And there were people there protesting our president! Go home traitors!” A true patriot. Her nutcracker jaw is flapping. She slices the air with a tiny plastic American flag, made tinier by her larger-than-lifeness and her regalia aglitter with sequins.
Before I can let her know that she mistook me for one of her own, that I’m a traitor, Uncle Ann has made her way into the “seasonal” aisle. Great Falls of Misfire!