Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Richest Hill on Earth

My favorite city is not Paris. I’ve been to Paris. It was cold, rainy, and full of aggressive street vendors hawking miniature Eiffel Towers. When they tried a sales pitch in French first, and then English, I pretended to speak German.

It’s not Zurich either. A beautiful city, full of cobblestones and cathedrals, but one in which the public restrooms seem to be constructed from the refuse of an original Star Trek shoot. When I got locked in one of these restrooms for over twenty minutes, I tried to read the instructions in German first, and then English, until I realized I didn’t speak the lavatory-Swiss German of: “You’re screwed.”

I wandered through these cities in a permanent state of awe and confusion. I gawked, spinning around like a top stuck in a sidewalk grate. A top, you realize, has no business being in a sidewalk grate. I’m not sure exactly what does belong in a sidewalk grate, but I certainly didn’t. Those cathedrals are meant to tower over carelessly chic, peripatetic, polyglot Europeans who stroll arm in arm under crouching concrete gargoyles and stiffly postured saints, not a dork with a twenty pound backpack and some rusty high school Spanish. That’s when I realized. When I tasted the truth of it, bitter as Turkish coffee.

My favorite city is not one of these magical places. It’s a place where I can stand still. Where I speak the language, which can only be described as a cross between rancher and miner, with some base metals on the tongue. Butte, Montana. A stone of a place that manages to get down inside you and rattle around your skull so much that, when you’re not there, you actually miss the noise.

When I first visited Butte, a dirty city carved into a cluster of denuded, mine-scarred hills, my husband and I were looking for a place to settle in Montana. We had narrowed it down to Butte and Dillon, one a city of 30,000 and the other a town of 4,000. We had a hard time deciding, so we did what we always do: we looked for ice cream. It was August, and we stood around – there were few outdoor tables at this particular establishment – with chocolate cones dripping down our wrists. The guy next to us, born and raised in Butte, said: “Ice cream is good on a day like this. Of course, come winter, we’ll all wish we were somewhere else.” He had a look like he was seeing the future, our future, in the reflection of the glass window, just behind the Go Bulldogs sign, and it wasn’t good.

Afterward, we wandered up and down the streets, all with names that function as testaments to the copper boomtown Butte was until 1920 or so. Mercury. Granite. Quartz. The hot wind blew up dust devils that raced past our legs, and we strolled on, staring at the grand old Hotel Finlen, at brick buildings with the shadows of bankrupt business names stenciled above the windows, worn away by decades of snow. We kept squinting; something blew in our eyes.

“Could you live here?” my husband asked. “I don’t know,” I told him. “The grit in my eyes is keeping me from saying yes.”

When we checked into the Capri Motel to deliberate, a man emerged from a back room, a TV dinner still warm in his hands, and gave us the key. We started our laundry, went back to the room to look at a map, and when we returned, someone had stolen my underwear.

We never did end up living in Butte. Dillon won out. But as anyone who lives in Dillon knows, if you have any emergencies or need anything important, you go to Butte. So we came to know it. We’d drive an hour up through the Pioneer mountains –sunrise, sunset, bighorn sheep crossing the road – to conduct business at a little copy shop full of kind ladies. Their pug, Pearl, sat in the window, frosting it with her breath. We had lunches at the Hanging Five diner, which I thought for years was the Hanging Umbrella diner, not realizing the “umbrella” was an upside down 5, our car parked precariously on an ice-covered hill in the parking lot. Once during Knievel Days, when Butte’s own Evel Knievel family is celebrated raucously, I waited for a mechanic to bring my car back to life while motorcycles flew over the car dealership and flames shot out of pyrotechnic equipment positioned in hollow trash cans in the street.

We flew in and out of Butte, with half of our outgoing flights cancelled from blizzards. We didn’t mind. It seemed a better deal to be in Butte, even if it just meant wandering along Blacktail Creek trail. Sometimes, flying in, we were given the option to stay put in Salt Lake or risk a flight with the world’s bravest pilot (sorry, Sully Sullenberger) through blank-white skies and clouds like speed bumps to get back home to Montana. We always chose to take the risk, and as we’d come down, a cemetery on one side of the airport and a bowling alley on the other, we were never sorry.

I love Butte and its contradictions. In the winter, the cold freezes everything, and the bitter air gets down in your lungs like metal, but ice crystals fall from the air like some kind of miracle. It’s a poisoned place, with arsenic and lead left behind from copper mining days. It had the longest running brothel in the United States, but its inhabitants also built a giant, 90 foot Our Lady of the Rockies statue out of donated material, which juts out of the mountains like a toenail. It was built, they say, to honor women.

Butte is not pretty. The biggest tourist draw is the Berkeley Pit, what remains of the largest truck operated pit mine, a toxic brew so full of heavy metals that, a few years ago, three hundred unfortunate geese made the mistake of using it for nesting grounds and perished. Almost alone among U.S. cities, Butte allows open containers of alcohol on the street.

If you go to the brand new Butte-Silver Bow website, you’ll see a pretty picture of the county courthouse. You won’t see the ramshackle buildings, the ice cracked roads. The website seems to suggest that Butte needs – and is getting – a city’s version of an Extreme Makeover. It says, as a selling point, that Butte is “…located halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which makes us a natural stop.” It’s like the most the city can ever be is the cultural version of a rest area.

I disagree. When you drive over the Continental Divide in fall, the mountains yellow with aspens and red with mining scars, you know it’s a place worth stopping for. That it has earned its hardness, and that it demands the same of you.

Butte is a hard, ugly diamond of a city. Maybe it could use some polishing, starting with cleaning up the lead and arsenic in its rivers. That I can get behind. But I don’t want Butte to become Disneyland or Times Square. I don’t want it to be anything but rough and cold to the touch. It’s probably selfish of me, I know. But in the end, I want “The Richest Hill on Earth” to stay the same, or at the very least, to hoard all its strange riches for myself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Piece in Matador Travel

I'm thrilled to be featured in the current issue of the wonderful travel magazine, Matador! As part of a new series that looks at how authors take a story from field notes to final form, I reflected on how my real life experience at Acoma Pueblo helped shape my short story, "Everything Gets Mixed Together at the Pueblo," appearing now in the current issue of Crab Orchard Review.

Check out my piece in Matador here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My baby, in the flesh.

“Remember this moment,” my husband wrote today. “Remember this day.”

I told him via IM that the first ARC copies of my novel, Bone Worship, had arrived, brought up to the front door by our perpetually angry looking mail lady. (“Why was she angry?” he asked. “Probably because she’s a mail lady,” I told him.) We had waited so long to see them we had begun to give up hope. It seemed that everyone else had a copy to review, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, but I still had not seen one. It was like in one of those bad movies where a woman gives birth and nurses whisk away the child, never to be seen again. What did my baby even look like? Maybe it wasn’t a book at all. Maybe I had given birth to a fish.

But I saw it, so it was real. It did exist.

The angry mail lady walked briskly, dodging the flower bed, the rain puddles, clutching the package in her hand. The white padded envelope. Probably it was something else, I thought. A forgotten Amazon order. One of those weird, free pseudo-Christian novels you find wedged into your mailbox, the kind proselytizing people leave around at gas stations. “Thank you,” I said, as Sad Mail Lady (the anger now subsided, dampened by the cold rain) handed the envelope to me, along with our cable bill and some other assorted, pedestrian correspondence. Strange how it arrives this way, the end result of seven years of your life, your work, just slipped in like any other thing. No shaft of light, no heavenly music, no friendly UPS man in autumnal brown micro-shorts asking me to sign a form. (Although it did seem to happen in something close to slo-motion.) The mail lady told me to take care and backed away from the door. I didn’t say anything. I stared at the envelope.

I went inside, placed it on the table. It couldn’t have been anything else. I squeezed the envelope, felt three, maybe four copies inside. I could not open it.

Remember this moment, the whole day. All that came before and all after.

Before, what was I doing? I took a break from a full morning of story submissions and article writing to have lunch. A banana, half of a PB&J sandwich. I turned on the television in the background, and there was a show about meth addicts on MTV, people in rehab with blue lips. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer stood in the gilded, technological prison of The Situation Room.

After the envelope? My heart pounded, I paced. I washed the lunch dishes, took the dog out to pee in the rain.

I moved the envelope from room to room, letting it get acquainted with everything. Like a pet.

Recently I read author Mahbod Seraji’s blog about the first moment he opened an envelope containing a copy of his debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran. It was a moving and funny account involving a flight from Iran and the actress Annette Bening. Seraji wrote about weeping when he held his book in his hands, and I wondered if, when my moment came, I would do the same.

Instead, I found myself thinking about babies.

Once I went for a physical, and a nurse asked me a series of questions from a clipboard. Did I have children? “No.” (She glanced up, as if to ascertain my age.) What did I do? (This question, I think, was not on the clipboard, but rather a matter of curiosity, or an attempt to make the general experience of being in the doctor’s office less terrifying.)

“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, like a journalist?”
“No, a novel and short stories. Well, some non-fiction, here and there.”

After this, somehow the subject of children came up again, though I can’t remember how or why. She said something that involved this phrase: “When you have children.” To which I quickly responded, not wanting to be coy when one’s health is under discussion – “Actually, I don’t plan on having children.”

Immediately the nurse asked, almost reflexively: “Is there a problem? Have you been trying?” Images of defective ovaries danced through her head, twisted sperm, ill-fitting plumbing, a general reproductive breakdown. “No, we just don’t want them,” I answered. (Though I have always wanted to say, “like” instead of “want,” but have never been brave enough to do so, mostly because one is looked at like a monster when unmoved by the cuteness of children.)

“Ah, I see,” she said, after what seemed like an inappropriately long pause. She laughed nervously. “Perhaps your books are your children, then.”

She went on with her business, the physical came and went, but those words stayed with me. And the pity behind the words. And believe me when I tell you there was pity. As if one’s creative endeavors, one’s novels and poems and stories, have all become the literary equivalent of the mangy cats that spinsters allegedly keep for company in the drafty attics of their empty houses. Surrogates for families. Poor substitutes for flesh and blood.

Perhaps she was right. It may be that there is something pathetic about me in this moment, standing around, staring in awe at the fresh copies of my novel on our kitchen table. They don’t seem lifeless, even though they’re not crying, not spitting up. There’s a story inside, moving all around. In them, I can see fragments of the writer I was when I began, the writer I became by the end, all of it recorded in their pages.

Four copies. They’re so beautiful, just resting there.

Like a new mother, I hardly know what to do with them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Four Years in Montana

I have a theory that the state of Montana is enormous for a reason. That its vastness is a test, each highway a reticulated part of a puzzle. You have to work hard to get there. Whether it’s 15 North, winding from the lunar hills of Monida Pass across to wind-scraped Great Falls, Interstate 90 from hip Bozeman to rimrocked Billings, or the hi-line from Cut Bank to Wolf Point, where blizzards seem to blow up out of the road itself, travelling through Montana is a test of your patience and of your character. After all, what else can you expect from a place famous for the size of its sky?

It is easy to be swallowed up in all that space. Easier still to pretend that you’ve tamed it by driving Going-to-the-Sun road or having your picture taken next to the Missoula airport’s stuffed grizzly. In order to really understand Montana, you’ve got to adjust yourself to the rhythms of the rivers, the snow. The golden flicker of aspen leaves. If you let it, Montana can shape you. As Annick Smith, smitten with the Bear Creek Valley near the Big Blackfoot River, once wrote: “If I lived here, who would I be?” It can make you – better yet, show you how to make yourself – carving the promise of you out of millennial rock, like the pipe organ formations that hang over the highway south of Dillon, the whole land worthy of worship. You can’t rush through Montana, however much you might want to – though, truthfully, I’ve never wanted to – and if you’re not open to it, you won’t be affected by it. It’ll be just a blur outside your cold glass window.

Recently I overheard two friends talking about how bored they were driving through Montana. Their conversation was peppered with Unabomber jokes, and they insisted on calling the gritty city of Butte – a place where the hills were leached for copper, a place with its own pit, for chrissakes – “Butt.” Ha, ha. I refrained from telling them the whole of Butte, with its jagged edges of ice in winter, everything metal cracking at -20 degrees, could probably kick their collective asses. They didn’t mean anything by it, of course. Montana wasn’t their place. Maybe their place was Texas or Florida, or even Hawaii, which has always seemed to me like a land of perishables – fragile flowers, endangered cultures, and a bunch of slovenly tourists who sprawl on the beaches, their hearts and minds elsewhere.

Do people still have places anymore? That’s what worries me. Does anyone consider it worthwhile to relocate because they love a place? Nowadays, people move for jobs, for houses, for the low price of gas. Tell someone you’re moving to a place you love just for its placeness, and they look at you like you’re nuts. (Much less a place like Montana, plagued by meth, a scarcity of jobs, and unremitting low incomes.) Tell someone that and they think you’re a fool, a romantic. And maybe it’s true; it’s just a silly romance. No maybe about it. I’m in the midst of a love affair with the state of Montana.

I blame Rick Bass. My evidence for indictment is Winter: Notes from Montana, his glorious account of a frozen winter in the Yaak valley. I read it when I was 22, about to start grad school, and then I convinced my mother to accompany me to Missoula. We rented a car and drove through western Montana, from the Bison Range in Moiese up into Glacier, stayed in little hotels shaped like teepees with photographs of grizzlies on the wall, and when we weren’t seeing our first bighorn sheep or navigating the snow-packed, cliffside dirt roads around Lolo and Libby, I was reading about Rick and the Yaak, reading enough to know that two weeks in hotels, however quaint, wasn’t going to cut it. I had to live in Montana. I wanted to be, again quoting Annick Smith, “that woman chopping her wood.”

Two years later, MFA in hand, my boyfriend and I packed an aging Ford Taurus before sunrise, loaded up our year old lab mix, mosquitoes taking shots at all of us, and drove from South Carolina across the country to Dillon, Montana. Our foolishness astounds me now; we had no jobs, knew no one. We’d only ever driven through Dillon once, for about fifteen minutes – that’s about all the time it takes to drive through Dillon – on the way back from Yellowstone. From Butte, we came down 41, from Twin Bridges, called “Twin” by everyone as we’d later learn, through pastures with distant mountains jutting up in the background, their peaks dusted ominously with snow. It was August. The drive was blazing hot at first, and we let our dog splash around in the Beaverhead River to cool herself off. She had never been in a river before that day, but since then, she has been in almost all the major rivers in the country. That’s another thing about Montana – it shapes dogs too.

We lived in a half-brick duplex on a dead-end street, with the Blacktail Creek flowing nearby, a rickety foot bridge leading into town. In the spring, we’d stand on the bridge and wait for the season’s first ducklings to float under, gently swept along by the Blacktail. Sometimes in summer, walking our dog, I’d spook a Great Blue Heron, either walking the handrail of the bridge, lifting its feet like a can-can dancer, or standing on pencil thin legs in the creek below. Flapping tremendous blue wings, it seemed like something between a dinosaur and an angel. In the winter, we walked down to the bridge at night, when the snow muted everything, our footsteps, our breathing, and we’d stand on the old nails and joints and eat snow off the rail, chomping our frozen lips into four inches of fluffy snow limning each plank of wood.

For four years, we lived in Montana, and it lived in us. If I’m being romantic describing it that way, I apologize, but only in the way that two lovers apologize for getting caught kissing in a grocery store aisle, by which I mean to say, I’m not really sorry at all. We grew up there, grew into each other, married each other and then married the land. There are parts of us there even now, long after we moved away. Once upon a time, we climbed mountains and wrote love letters and set them free in the frozen wind; the scraps of paper got caught in cattle fences where, I believe, they will stay forever. Our dog chased rabbits for four years, carving tracks into the Beaverhead Mountains, the Pioneers, kicking up wild iris at Lemhi Pass, and she came to know who she was, even if she never caught a single rabbit. We watched a porcupine by moonlight on an ice covered mountain, turning over and over a piece of bark in his claws. We were, as I said, in this world, and it in us.

We no longer live in Montana. That is an illness that plagues us. Norman Maclean wrote about being haunted by Montana’s waters, and I don’t think he was being romantic in the slightest. I understand how he felt. That yearning for a place that becomes a part of you. Of course Montanans, native ones anyway, would probably laugh at such thoughts. One thing we learned was, no matter how long one lives in Montana – four years or forty – if you weren’t born there, you’ll never be considered a Montanan. You can’t fake it. You were born of the long, bitter winters and short, blazing summers, or you weren’t. It’s pretty simple that way. They’ll be nice to transplants – indeed, some of the kindest people we’ve ever known are native Montanans – but you’ll never really be one of them.

True Montanans are practical people. They build their pipes so that they don’t burst in -40 degree weather, and they shoot gophers to keep their horses from falling into their holes and breaking their legs. Real Montanans work two and three jobs, are good at everything, and still roll under barbwire fences when they are 80. They have no patience for movie stars who spend easy summers on their land, nor do they suffer poets, unless you are a poet who also knows your way around a fly rod. In the four years we lived in Montana, someone must have squinted at us half a dozen times and asked “Why the hell would you want to move here?” Sometimes it seemed like no one wanted to be in Montana at all; other times it seemed like the whole state consisted of a private club of ranchers, a league of men who knew a secret they could not or would not share with you. Somewhere in all those acres of pastureland was a password passed down from grandfather to grandson, some word we’d never know. That’s okay, I always thought. If I lived here, I’d be proprietary about it too.

In the years since we’ve been gone, I have always tried to say that one place is as good as any. I do believe that, in some sense. I’ve always found beauty in the places we’ve lived. But then, if I’m honest, really truly honest, I have to admit that, for me, there is no better place than Montana. It’s okay if you don’t see it that way, if you like Michigan or Vermont or Iowa. Those are all nice places too.

I know that Montana is not finished with me, nor I with it. It’s a long, slow process, the carving, the creating. Perhaps it won’t be over until I’m an old, white-haired lady with a stooped, white-haired husband, surrounded by dogs, making our way along the Big Hole River, finding all the familiar trails and re-learning them, committing them to muscle memory.

We go back sometimes and walk into the woods, and it all feels fresh again. The song of the black capped chickadee, the magpie, the summer grasshoppers on the dry, yellow grass. We drive into the smell of sagebrush, and our dog becomes alert again, even though her muzzle is not the muzzle of the Montana puppy she once was, but is now speckled with white fur. Her legs tense, as if she is remembering it all, the four years, the mountains, the sky, all at once. And when we start walking, the sage rubs against our legs, marking us, claiming us, and it seems if we listen hard enough, we might, at long last, hear the word.