By Mark Roosevelt, President
I love to travel and love to read while on trips. Before a trip I spend a few happy moments placing books “in nomination” and then choosing the ones that actually make it into my bags. Of course, a book that is connected in some way to my destination has an edge.
This summer Greg and Anne Avis invited Dorothy, Juliana, and me to visit their ranch about an hour and a half from Yellowstone (Greg is a member of the Antioch College Board of Trustees). There are many fine books that have Montanan or western settings. I enjoy the nature-embracing, tough but injured, middle-aged guy books of Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane and have read A River Runs Through It and much of Wallace Stegner with great pleasure. But I could find nothing “western” on my shelves that jumped out and said, “read me now!” So I brought two books I had been meaning to read for years, Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.
The Avis’ ranch proved to be as beautiful as we had heard. They have done a wonderful job converting existing buildings such as old granaries into two small, comfortable and functional complexes that fit seamlessly into the landscape. Their architect says that they are doing what the land and its history call for, as a Montanan “would use what he had before he built something new,” although of course the architect must know that is hardly true of most newcomers. They live at the edge of their large holding, so that the rest of the property is as it was and, happily, as it always will be, since they have conserved more than 95 percent of their land through a relationship with the Montana Land Reliance.
We rode horses, from which, amazingly, I didn’t fall; fished the Yellowstone River; ate elk harvested by our hosts; and wondered at the drought that produced drier conditions than a neighbor had seen in 50 years. We spent our time looking for beauty, and beauty was on display in abundance.
But, as is so often the case, books open up another world entirely.
I read Sapphira (one of Cather’s weaker books) and was half-way though both the trip and The Corrections (not a great book, but entertaining) but still felt something missing. Greg and Anne introduced us to the first-rate independent bookstore Country Bookshelf in Bozeman. While Dorothy read to Juliana, I roamed the well-organized and well-stocked shelves looking for something.
What I found was Frances McCue’s The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs: Revisiting the Northwest Towns of Richard Hugo, which, when coupled with Hugo’s poems, brings to gray life another far-less beautiful Montana—struggling, left-behind, and more than a bit drunk and dirty.
McCue and photographer Mary Radlett visited many of the small towns Hugo used as “triggers” for his poetic and personal searchings. Most are in Montana, where Hugo lived towards the end of his life when he taught at the University of Montana in Missoula.
The book is hard to classify. It is part biography, part literary criticism, part travelogue, part memoir, but mostly a history of a number of damaged places occupied by damaged people who “washed up there” and stayed on, despite or perhaps because of the fact that whatever caused a town to be there in the first place (mining, train stops, etc.) disappeared a long time ago.
In the end McCue’s book is a form of literary investigation. She searches for the meaning of Hugo’s poems in the places that inspired them. It results in a “close reading,” not an academic literary analysis but something better. McCue writes that Hugo’s “attention to the actual places could be scant, but Hugo’s poems capture the torque between temperament and terrain that is so vital in any consideration of place.” What a felicitous phrasing that is, “torque” is the perfect word, and McCue’s explorations deepen our comprehension of Hugo’s poems by expanding on his “scant” and often fictional riffing off the actual towns by exploring local history and local characters. So in the end, we get a powerful sense of what life is like in these struggling Montana towns—Dixon, St. Ignatius, Milltown, Walkerville, Philipsburg, Butte, Pony, Silver Star, and Fairfield.
McCue records the hidebound hostility of the old-timers towards newcomers. Sparing neither coast, signs in a Dixon bar that Hugo frequented argue that “My Montana has an east infection” and also “Save the Northwest: Spay and Neuter Californians.” And she shows how even the unthreatening, earthy, fishing-addicted, bar- and bourbon-crazed Hugo’s work inspired little affection, when it was noticed at all. Many residents of Dixon, for example, resented his depiction of their town and others were displeased by his occasional travelling companion, the Native American author Jim Welch. The waitresses and, sadly, even the town librarian of Philipsburg, the locale of perhaps his greatest poem, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg,” had not heard of Hugo or his poem and exhibited no eagerness to change that.
Dorothy, Juliana, and I did not get to these towns on this trip but we’ll try to if we travel to Montana again. In the meantime, we will remember the beauty of the Avis’ ranch, and that we live in a nation that is home to many glorious saved places and too many ruins as well.