July 19, 2008

Montana, Eleven Years Later

In the summer of 2005 I joined my dad for a trip to Malta, MT to visit my grandparents. Malta is the county seat of Phillips County, which means that at under 3,000 people, it's still the largest city in the county. I hadn't been to visit since I was 14.

I took a lot of notes during this trip hoping I'd write about it later, but I never got around to it. However, I stumbled across the notes while moving recently, and found them sort of entertaining in their own right, even though (perhaps especially because) I've completely forgotten much of the context. Consider it a slideshow of hastily-worded snapshots: my summer vacation.

*Scolded by clerk for checking into flight late (50 minutes before takeoff).

*Arrive in SLC. Not as Mormon as I'd hoped.

*In NYC I'd be less than nothing, but I feel like a badass in SLC. Projecting badassness all around me in waves.

*Order croissant and banana at airport Starbucks. Cashier looks at me like I'm crazy. Calls it a "ber-nanner."

*Guy in SLC airport inconspicuously takes a picture of me.

*Smoking lounge with open doors and 8-gallon ashtrays. Want to take a picture but feel guilty, like taking pictures of people in the bathroom.

*Land in Billings, MT. Smoking cigars with Dad every ten minutes, seems like.

*You can drive in the oncoming lane to pass someone here. I get nervous because we can't see very far ahead, but I keep track and it's several minutes before a single car comes from that direction.

*In MT it's eerily more obvious that clouds are 3-dimensional.

*Counties in MT read like a list of ingredients from a magic spell. Sweet Grass. Stillwater. Petroleum. Rosebud. Treasure. Mussel Shell. Yellowstone. Fergus. Don't actually know what "Fergus" is.

*While passing two lumber trucks at 110 mph, Dad discovers the governor device in the rental car that keeps you from accelerating.

*Clouds like follicles on an invisible skin, clouds unscrolling like aquatic plants.

*The longer you live somewhere, the more you're forced to hate yourself for putting up with what you dislike about living there.

*Grandma, upon seeing me: "How come you don't grow your hair down over your ears?"

*A landscape free of irony. When you see a giant flag that's covered with hummingbirds waving from someone's lawn, you know that the banner she's flying is one she believes in with her whole heart.

*These people are neither bored nor boring when they talk about the quality of cherries this year.

*No gate on the cemetery.

*Words to reclaim: "Feller." "Outfit," not in relation to clothing.

*MT equivalent of NYC kiss-on-the-cheek greeting is waving from pickup truck as you pass.

*Everyone's level of pain is such a huge factor in deciding what to do. Can hear Dad's breathing.

*Even a vegan would slap these mosquitoes.

*Long pickup journey. My grandfather is notorious for uttering silent farts that threaten to "fracture his whole being" if he holds them in. He claims it's okay because they don't smell anymore; my father suggests that it's more likely that his smeller's broke.

*When your hair is white, your electric razor fills up with grey powder.

*My sexual instinct simply does not react realistically to the facts of life here. The possibilities I see are so imaginary as to border on delusional.

*Dad outed me as a Democrat, for his own entertainment.

*Grandma says my nose looks pinched, like it didn't grow to fit my face.

* "Leave the camera at home. I don't want anything but memories." Sorry, dad...

*The bars here have toilets with those electric sensors, and internet mp3 jukeboxes.

*T-shirt idea for next visit: "Lie with man as with woman"

*Town has 9:30 PM curfew. Fire siren announces.

*Apparently I am related to this guy Leroy, who we ran into at a bar. He found a dinosaur fossil on his farm(?)

*On a marriage license from 1951: "______, a man, whose color is ______."

*In a restroom at a bar: "Notice: Because this is a public establishment and considering the AIDS crisis, the management, by placing this condom dispensing machine, is taking the moral responsibility in providing its patrons with a life-saving device and is neither approving or disapproving of any party's behavior."

*People related to me who happen to be at bar: 7

*Run into Aunt Karen in the bar. She picks up a shot of "cactus juice" from the bar and literally tilts my head back and pours it down my throat.

*Dad tells someone at the bar that he has "returned to the old country to get wise and wealthy."

*Open carton of butter flavoring next to stale popcorn in machine.

*Bar is called "Mint Bar." I ask why it's named that and everyone raises their brows and looks at me like I'm crazy.

*Dad recognizes miserable smelly indigent at bar, doesn't want to him to notice us. Of course he does right away, and within minutes "Lou" lays down quarters to challenge us to pool. Keep waiting for Dad to get us out of it, but we play. He asks me what I do in NYC; I toy with the idea of telling him I'm queer-- I get the idea Dad would find that funny. I hear Lou tell Dad that one of his sons drowned. "Yeah, I still get the Phillips County News," says Dad. I have an incredible sense of deja vu. Dad fakes friendliness astonishingly well. After we leave, he tells me that Lou took my aunt to her senior Prom.

*People keep commenting on how skinny I am. In Malta, you are only skinny if you are pubescent, an alcoholic, working yourself to death, or are being ravaged by cancer.

*Consider: "rodeo" as a verb.

*Rodeo serves "Mexican-Style Wontons"

*Amidst all the warm and wonderful experiences, a feeling of dread. Everyone I've met here deals with their pain so nobly, but here at the rodeo it is met with such acceptance that it seems almost pathological-- as I watch everyone limp up and down the grandstand steps, navigating either devastating infirmities or ponderous girth, I imagine what has led to these lives built on and around pain: their hard work that transcends productivity so as to become obsessive, their determination to endure and provide, to the point of martyrdom-- but for what? I watch men who work themselves sore every day tie into a saddle to be shaken apart for public spectacle, and for what? They mock pampered outsiders who live as painlessly as possible, and while there is nobility in doing what it takes to flourish at risk of life and limb, it seems so inhuman for everyone to have so little self to nourish that self-destruction winds up being a virtue if carried out in socially acceptable ways. Foolishness is reviled here, yet there seems to be no future worth preserving oneself for. Eating, drinking, and work are all carried to such extremes that one's suffering becomes inevitable instead of left to chance. Pain obliterates reason, obliterates anything beyond basic earthbound instincts. And if you refuse any of the above violences, people are incredulous and suspicious. You either submit, live in hiding, or go far away. I bet only the people who do the latter later recall making a conscious choice in the matter.

*In a strange place you have to continually remind yourself to stay involved, and not just watch everything around you like it's on TV.


rr256 said...

Your blog made me laugh. I am from Malta. I grew up there, but do not live there anymore. You have begun to describe the that which frequently cannot be described. Malta is not a river-runs-through-it place.

It is better.

Write the book. The story needs telling.

Tom said...

Wow, then you probably know my family :) I hope I get to go back to Malta again soon, something tells me it will show up in my writing somewhere down the line.

So, wait-- are you not going to tell me what the Mint Bar is named after either??

rr256 said...

The Mint Bar.

I am not certain if there is any significance to the name, directly.

If you look across the landscape of Montana, Wyoming, etc., you will see a common theme: small towns have bars with legendary names such as: The Mint, The Pastime, The Stockman, The Rainbow, The Lounge, etc.

Not sure where the names came from, but if drive through any small town in the western US, you are very likely to find a Mint-like bar (called a "long-bar") with a similar name.

Tom said...

I guess at the time I wondered whether it might have something to do with a governmint mint, like a money printing press, as opposed to the herb. Silly me! In NYC hardly anything has an arbitrary name. And so much of it goes back hundreds of years.

It's funny growing up in a tiny town and not really every questioning the story behind things. You just assume if it was important, you'd know it. I just realized that I don't know ANYTHING about what bars are called out West, because most of my travels and road trips were before I was old enough to notice or patronize them.

"The Stockman" was far less ambiguous :)