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Kayaker on Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park. Probably the only normal person in Montana

I believe Montanans are the most strangely charismatic people in the country. I don’t mean they are particularly gracious, warm or polite, though they sometimes are, and I certainly can’t recall experiencing any meanness in Montana. It’s more that they never commit the sin of being boring. Travel enough out west, and you’ll start to notice all the benignly hilarious interactions you have with the locals.

Travis, Fred and I are all native Midwesterners. They hail from the ever sensible state of Iowa, and I was born and raised in Indiana. Our home states are full of stoic types who are unaccustomed to the assertive interpersonal quirkiness of the American West. Fred had been to Montana once before, but Travis never had, and I wondered what they would make of the characters we’d find out there.

After we emerged from Yellowstone, with its brazen grizzly bears and its pits of boiling mud, we headed north toward Glacier. We stopped for the night just south of Flathead Lake in a pleasant looking campground with the Holy Grail: a clean and pleasant shower facility. I was glad to bathe.  My skin was coated with a kind of backcountry smear composed of dust, sweat, and bug dope. I wanted nothing more than to wash it away.

Once we showered the following morning, the next most important need — coffee — began to press. We didn’t really feel making it ourselves. When you’re that close to civilization, the prospect of having someone do it for you is too alluring. So we piled into the car and, because this is the west where you can’t swing a cat without hitting an espresso stand or a coffee shop, found our morning beverages three minutes from the RV park. Even in the smallest towns out west, you can find good coffee. You won’t find truffle aioli in a small town in the American west, but you will find a coffee shop with three carafes of high-quality Sumatran, Ugandan, and Kenyan coffee blends.

We settled down with our drinks on a broad leather sofa under a huge, wrought iron chandelier.  The enormous piece was encircled by a steel diorama of silhouetted cowboys tending cattle and leaning over campfires. I leaned back in the overstuffed chair and examined the detail of the metalwork, sipping slowly from my coffee cup. As I drank, I noticed a figure lurking on the edge of my field of vision, and moving toward us. He had a white cowboy hat perched atop an equally white patch of hair, and he was wearing a red plaid shirt and the standard-issue belt buckle fastened around a large and well-cultivated belly.  He wobbled a little as he walked.

I knew before he said a word that this dude was going to be one of those characters, like the guy in my town who would take his goat to the grocery store in his Volkswagen bus. Cowboy Man had a wad of chewing tobacco under his lip, and he grunted something almost unintelligible to – who else? – Fred, the freak magnet.

“’S’cuse me son,” he said, slowly and with a pointed twang as he gestured to Fred’s Vibrams, “but I do believe you forgot to put your shoes on this morning.” Fred is used to catching shit about his toe shoes, so he just chuckled and mumbled an affirmative in return. Undeterred, the old cowboy immediately attempted to engage Travis about the wisdom of adorning his morning coffee with whiskey.

“Well I guess it all depends whether you’re man enough to do it,” he mused, allowing the question of whether Travis was, in fact, sufficiently manly to dangle prominently in the air. Travis managed a polite laugh, which I thought was admirable, considering his masculinity was being evaluated by a stranger, solely by the contents of his coffee.  The old cowboy tried another approach.  “So,” he asked, “how you likin’ the country?” He had accurately pinned us as tourists. I guess it was Fred’s toe shoes and our general conversational reticence.

“Well enough,” I answered for my flummoxed companions.

“Glad to hear it, but you’re gonna need a better hat,” he informed Fred, nodding at his black knit ski cap. “That little beanie ain’t gonna protect you from the rain. You need a brim, son. Keep your ears dry.”

“Can I have yours?” Fred ribbed him, having regained his composure.  The old cowboy guffawed. He was clearly pleased to have one on the hook, finally.

“Awwwww, no,” he replied. “Got this out east. Twenty-five dollars. Cost you eighty, ninety out here. Out east near Billings only twenty, twenty-five.”

I grinned. “Out east” for this guy meant Billings, Montana. I could appreciate that.

Our new friend paused, and shifted his clutch of tobacco a little bit beneath his lip. “Lived here all my life. Work as a farrier now,” he offered, his conversation a running chain of non-sequiturs. “Not man enough to put whiskey in my coffee though.” He gazed wistfully out the window. Never have been, sorry to say.”

I don’t know how long politeness would have trapped us on that couch had we not all noticed at the same time that it had started to rain, and remembered that our camps hadn’t yet been packed. We jumped up amid exclamations about wet gear, bid our goodbyes to the farrier, and ran out to the car to head back to our campsite.

Later that day, we arrived in the Kalispell area to find it rainy and rather too cold for the last week in June. None of us really felt like heading to Glacier only to hike in the chilly rain, so we kicked around and had a shopping day.  Early that afternoon, Travis came rushing out of a public restroom to find me.

“You’re not going to believe what just happened to me in the bathroom,” he said breathlessly. That’s ordinarily an alarming thing to hear from your husband, so I listened attentively.

“I was in there washing my hands, when this dude comes up to the sink next to me –”

Before he said another word, I knew.

“—and he looks at me for a second and grunts, ‘You a liberal?’” Travis stopped for a moment to let me fully digest the shock of being interrogated about his political preferences in a public bathroom.

“Well, I wasn’t sure what to say, so I looked him over just in case he decided he wanted to kick my ass, and I figured I could take him. So I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a liberal.’ And he looks really happy, like he just found a unicorn or something, and says, ‘Really?’ And so I said, ‘Yeah, really.’”

“And so he goes on this tirade, and he says ‘yeaaah, the closer you get to a college, the more of you there are, wanting to take people’s money, more and more until the whole damn thing collapses. These professors in these college towns, they get all these kids in one place, and they’re a captive audience, and these professors, they indoctrinate them into liberalism while they still don’t know any better.’ And so he sort of takes a breath while he’s drying his hands, and then he asks me, ‘Anyway, what do you do for a living?’”

Travis again paused for effect.

“So I said, ‘I’m a college professor.’” He beamed.

I knew then that Travis, as a connoisseur of sarcasm, would survive out here.

I was wondering, before I came back, whether my recollection of this place as a bustling hive friendly strangeness was a misapprehension, or maybe just a projection of my own affinity for weirdness.

I don’t think so. I was right the first time.  This place is crazy. And I love it.

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4 thoughts on “Hazards of the west: old cowboys and bathroom lectures

  1. ‘My skin was coated with a kind of backcountry smear composed of dust, sweat, and bug dope. I wanted nothing more than to wash it away.’ Jennifer, you must know- that’s just part of the deal out west. Great post! I just returned (about 15 hrs. ago) from a week in Glacier, a few days in Yellowstone, and a few more in the Big Horns… and a few other locales nearby… a truly GREAT time… all the while chatt’in/drink’in w/ the locals. Hot-ass weather, sweat, dust, great trails, carrying bear spray, a big-bore revolver, water and a few energy bars… it don’t get no better! Hope you had a good time… sure sounds like it! 😉

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