Monday, July 21, 2008

Day 5: E-Ticket Ride: Idaho to Montana

July 19: Washington to the Idaho Panhandle to Glacier National Park to Bozeman, Montana

Soundtrack: Ryan Adams, Gold; Willie Dixon; Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; Beethoven, More Greatest Hits; Oingo Boingo, Farewell #1; Chicago sountrack; Aviator soundtrack; Wall of Voodoo, Call of the West; Eric Clapton, Unplugged

The next passage in my journey is a love affair. I am in love with Montana.
John Steinback, Travels With Charley in Search of America

As the sun came up we crossed the last bridge over the Columbia River, just before it joined the Snake at Pasco, Washington, and headed north toward Coeur d’Elene. Having passed the only designated scenic section of Highway 84 in the dark, the road to Idaho was fairly plain in this direction, with rolling hills occasionally through farms and empty stretches of prairie. Laura slept on in the back, even when I stopped for gas somewhere on the 395. I was on autopilot by this time, but we managed to avoid Spokane and pulled into a sweet little cafe on the edge of Coeur d’Elene for breakfast. It had historic Idaho photos on every wall and I I walked around looking at them all, listening to locals talk real estate and home improvement.
We drove into the picturesque lakeside town, again shopping for a pin button for Natalie, and found one, with a tiny glass crescent moon for Charlie’s memorial, in a glass-making place in a restored brick storefront. Northeast through pines and mountains into Montana, we cruised through Glacier National Park like a Disneyland ride, wishing there was more time to stay at one of the expensive lakeshore hotels, take the quaint open air shuttles and sightseeing boats, climb the rocks up to snow, and luxuriate in the pure air. Stopping beside a snow-fed stream near one of the visitor centers, we waited as mountain goats crossing the road jammed traffic and everyone got out for the photo opportunity.
Since we were in Montana, Laura had to get another pin button, so we visited the visitor center and I found an octagonal retro decal that used the Glacier National art from the WPA project illustration. Laura and I took each other’s pictures with the backdrop of Going-to -the-Sun Mountain; I was wearing my Vincent Price shirt, which was appropriate since he once made a murder mystery in the Park.
Down State Road 89, Browning, a Blackfoot Reservation town with murals and natives in pickup trucks displaying Red Pride stickers, led into high plains. We saw a red fox, what Meriweather Lewis called “the most butifull fox in the world” when he encountered one in Montana, and trailing behind him were two sashaying skunks by the side of the road. What a tableau!
South of the Park into green rolling hills, we came to a town that Laura decided was perfect: Choteau, Montana. Under shade trees, past churches, and houses with sweeping lawns and a park with whooping children in a swimming pool, the road curved into the Lewis and Clark National Forest. She swore she wanted to retire there and open a bakery or a candy store, after she made it big in the industry.
But we bore southwest through rollercoaster hills toward Bozeman. Laura was driving and I tried to get the Heritage Motel on her cell phone to make a reservation. As the guy on the Verizon commercial said, it was a “crapshoot:” The disembodied voice of a young man came and went with the elevation and it took four calls just to transmit the number off the credit card. As it grew dark, I took over and Laura dozed in the back.
The short rode to Bozeman became a maze of detours and missed turns and deer in the headlights. Does and fawns were trying to cross the road in the dark; I passed several inert forms and narrowly missed pale shadows coming out of the rocks on a ten-mile stretch of gravel and roadwork over Bozeman Pass. It was staring into blackness and white-knuckes on the wheel the whole way to keep from hitting them. The whole experience was made more poignant by the remembrance that Charlie had thought of the deer as his totem animal, like Harry Potter with his stag.
Finally, we pulled into the parking lot of the Heritage Inn and met the owner of the disembodied phone voice, who reminded me of Charlie at 16. We were welcomed by a huge blond grizzly bear, standing over ten feet high, next to the rustic fireplace in the lobby. After the dark passage through the backroads, we found comfort and joy, real beds, and a heated pool in the morning.

Day 6: Yellowstone, Stoned

July 20: Yellowstone National Park to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
Soundtrack: Cake, Fashion Night; Best of David Bowie; Frida Soundtrack; The Rolling Stones, 40 Licks #2;

Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland. This being my natural attitude, I don’t know what made me turn sharply south and cross a state line to look at Yellowstone. Perhaps it was a fear of my neighbors. I could hear them say, “You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn’t go? You must be crazy!”
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America

In the morning we got up, steamed in the sauna, and soaked in the hot tub at the well-appointed Heritage Inn. Getting towels from the desk, I struck up a conversation with a lanky, loquacious local girl who was curious about the Frida Kahlo necklace Lucinda had given me. This curiosity about the photo would be a recurring theme across the country, like the doppelganger HHRs and significant souvenirs and the sidetrips where Charlie seemed to ride with us. The girl had never heard of Frida Kahlo, but we got to talking about artists and how she liked Georgia O’Keefe.
She said the bear was not a hunting casualty but a rare blond grizzly that had died naturally and been stuffed when it was found lying in the woods. “Maybe he had died from a pneumonia or batch of bad berries,” she suggested; somehow that made it better than just another hunter’s trophy.
Taking the continental breakfast up the back stairs to our room, we watched Your Cheatin’ Heart until checkout. It was always a joy to introduce Laura to my heroes and Hank Williams was someone I had grown up listening to in Shreveport, Louisiana in the early 50’s. There were dark rides with Daddy in the Chevy along the backroads of Caddo Parrish, listening to Louisiana Hayride. We often drove into Marshall, Texas to avoid paying sales tax on groceries; the radio made the drive magical, especially after dark.
I bid fond farewell to the stuffed grizzly bear and the chatty girl in the lobby and turned in the keys. From the darkness and distress of the night before, the day was bright and cheery and we started south to Yellowstone, following a green-dotted line down scenic highway 89 to the great stone arch of the park entrance. First there was a short stop by a high curb in the lusty town of Gardiner, where we found a drugstore and bought other things that were needed for the road: eye-drops, tissues, anacin, vitamin c, and a new Timex, since I’d lost mine at Sycamore Springs.
Outside on the charming board sidewalk we crossed paths with a bearded young man named Christopher from Silver Lake, who had been working at Yellowstone for several years. He said all the people up at the park were crazies and he was spending his vacation back in L.A., where the people were normal. His mother still lived a few blocks from us off Fletcher Drive; he recommended that we see the newly restored hotel at Old Faithful.
Flashing the Golden Eagle, we took the National Park map and paper from the ranger and drove the few miles to our first stop at Mammoth Hot Springs. The skies were clouding over the mineral deposits, but we managed to picnic on the green, hike around a couple of formations, and pick up a decal, pin button, and pillbox with a frozen Old Faithful on top at the park store. Rain came and went all the way around the park and after waiting about 20 minutes in showers under a tree, we watched a rather wind-blown and misted-over eruption of the real Old Faithful at 3:38 in the afternoon. The parking lot was full of vans and campers and family-packed cars from all over the states, moms and dads and kids and grandparents emerging to squabble and dry out and take advantage of restrooms and other amenities.
After we left the Old Faithful lot, cruising by the Lodge, which was still in the process of remodeling, we saw bison and elk off to the side of the road but no bears. Steinbeck found that his dog Charley had an in-bred hunting reaction to bears that made it impossible for them to stay in the park, sort of like Ringo the dalmatian had when he smelled smoke. This automatic response to selective breeding in dogs is a curious phenomenon. Ringo slunk along low to the ground and whined when there were fires in L.A. close enough to bother him; he also bolted and ran fast enough to keep up to a fire truck when he got away from us in Runyon Canyon. Otherwise, like Charley, he was usually an easy-going fellow.
On the way around the lake I tried again to fire up the joint again in Charlie’s honor, and although there are photos of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone that prove that we were not only there, but bent on getting the postcard view, I really don’t remember much about taking them.
Charlie’s drug of choice had long ceased to be a comfort to me, but it was unfortunate that if he had lived longer the combined proliferation of medical marijuana clinics and his disability paperwork might have made it legal for him to take the one thing that seemed to soothe his depression. The collateral damage he suffered from the drugs the HMO gave him (Zyprexa, Depacote) ate into his self-respect; the inmate treatment at the hands of clinic personnel undermined his pride.
Each person has his own chemistry, as I knew from my short exposure to the “mental health” system in Houston after I lost my radio show in 1973. An inappropriate prescription can wreck even the strongest brain for months and Charlie had been given one drug after another in the search for something effective to overcome his bad experience in the military. Marijuana was the one thing that worked, but, it being illegal, he broke the law to use it and try to grope his way back to sanity.
In 1973, I had found a drug that worked, Elavil, and after elevating a brain damaged by the first prescription - the experimental tranquilizer Stelazine- I was able to wean myself from Elavil and go on. The closest thing Charlie found to approximate normalcy was Wellbutrin. It got him out of bed, but the speed effect that helped working people function through the day just seemed to give him enough energy to carry out his sometimes aberrant ideas.
One day in Joshua Tree he gave me one of his 300 mg tablets and, boy, did we get things done! We cleared the overgrown cactus off a path and lined it with desert-varnished stones and, after it got too hot to work outside, we cleaned up in the house and took a walk in the cooling afternoon. Sitting and looking at a tortoise for nearly an hour, Charlie found a nearby property where someone had stored about a dozen old appliances in fairly good condition and began to arrange them in a circle. I had at first followed him onto the property, but became apprehensive about trespassing on someone else’s land.
While I hiked off the energy generated by the anti-depressant, he completed his installation and ordered me to come see. I was too afraid to set foot on the private property again, so he got mad and turned each of the carefully positioned refrigerators, stoves, and washers face down in the sand. This was disturbing to me: this was not his property; scorpions and snakes could now nest in the appliances and the metal would rust out in contact with the soil. After he had taken his anger out on the installation, he came back to my side and walked home, fairly calm, as I explained to him that I was afraid since he was in sight of a house that maybe this was their land; they might call the police on him.
When we got beck to our house, the full moon was rising and I pulled my chair around to watch it. Charlie still had over-amped energy and was acting manic. (The HMO never seemed to figure out what was wrong with him). I asked him to calm down and quit acting like a mental patient, but this unfortunate choice of words really set him off. He grabbed me from behind before I could sit down in the lawn chair, choked off my nose and mouth, and wrestled me inside.
“I’m acting like a mental patient?” he growled, “You’re the mental patient! Let me show you how they treat mental patients.” And he made me stay on my twin bed for the rest of the night, taking my keys so I couldn’t drive away and blocking my way every time I tried to get out.
If I said I had to go to the bathroom he had to go with me to “make sure I didn’t harm myself.” I realized this was the kind of treatment the HMO had given him and I began to feel so sorry for him; I decided to go to bed and let him calm down on his own. While I was trying to sleep, he initiated one of his marathon calls to his sister that had run the phone bill up to $400 the month before and kept her from getting any rest for school. I tried to get him to end the call, but he reminded me that I was a mental patient and he didn’t have to listen to me. I managed to get the keys to the car and drive back to L.A. while he went on talking. When I got home 2 hours later he was still on the phone with Laura. And when he realized I had gone back to L.A. without him he was furious.
Wellbutrin just seemed to fuel these manic episodes and he couldn’t concentrate enough to go back to school. Now (2007) the FDA was finally warning that anti-depressants could lead to suicide up to the age of 25, but this news hadn’t come out in 2003, in time to save Charlie.
When he had first moved out to the desert to go to Copper Mountain College and did nothing but smoke grass, he had managed to go to class and even work for a while, pay the bills, and get good grades. The only downside seemed to be that smoking was illegal and I thought about that now as we drove through the national park, high, scanning the rearview mirror for rangers.
Across the rolling plains of Wyoming, out of the park and east on State 14 and 16 until they merged with the 90, we wound along the dotted road through the Powder River Pass, coasting out of the pine-covered hills west of Buffalo, coming down to earth.
By nightfall we were on the Interstate and by the time we got off to seek out the entrance to Devil’s Tower National Monument, around 2 in the morning, Laura had fallen asleep in the back. I could just make out the shape of the mountain in the distance under stars. Inviting close encounters, I leaned the seat back and curled up under my jacket, unaware that a few miles up the the park road there were cozy cabins and campsites that could have made our night much more pleasant.