Missoula, Montana sits in the web of a hand with mountainous fingers that open to the broad palm of the Bitterroot Valley. With less than 70,000 residents, the city is the second largest in all of the state. Missoula has one of those broad vistas that creates the illusion of “big sky.” The city is not large, but the landscape it sits in is huge.
A snow squall spits snow from behind a fast-moving curtain of clouds. Fresh snow glistens like a red-carpet dress of white silk and sequins. Nothing accumulates beyond a few powdery inches that the wind can easily remove like a baker blowing flour dust off a kneading board. Sun, sky and clouds take turns at center stage. None have a lengthy performance.
Into this vacillating weather we drive. All the way from Sandpoint, Idaho we have caressed the curves of the Clark Fork River, driving the narrow Cabinet Gorge and mountain passes on roads that dare to follow the river. I liken the staggering drive to the flight of a sparrow, rolling and dipping as if we were in pursuit of elusive insects for dinner.
We do have a destination, though: Rock Creek. No, not that Rock Creek of my writing WIP. Out west, every other draw has a designated Rock Creek, among the most common names for moving water. This particular Rock Creek is in the heart of Montana’s premier trout fishing country and it is an artery that merges with the Clark Fork River where a lodge hosts a Testy Festy and serves beer and barbequed bull testicles.
Our lodge destination is beyond the river confluence with Rock Creek and we follow an even narrower road that shoulders straight down into slushy, rippling waters that hide trout in deep pools beneath dead logs and hollowed banks of meadow turf. You can’t look at this creek without thinking of Norman MacLean’s famous book, A River Runs Through It. Pause a moment and look.
Henry Thoreau may have modeled nature writing, nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment, but Norman MacLean mastered it. My heart rate quickens at the sight of the rippling waters, standing aspens, pine laden canyon walls, snow-sunny sky and I can’t separate what I see from what I believe about God.
MacLean wrote about this very region, about the family of a fly-fishing preacher, about brotherly relationships, about home. I’m driving down a road paved over his holyland of rocks, water and words. As a writer, this is akin to sighting the Virgin Mary. Nature writers — MacLean, Annie Dillard, Ivan Doig, Edward Abbey — are my saints.
A reading from the book of MacLean, A River Runs Through It:
“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
Driving to the Blue Damsel, a luxury fly-fishing lodge that might as well be the church of St. Peter, it is built so close to the rockbed, I am haunted by the way a master observes this expansive environment and writes it into prose that even Brad Pitt would want to speak on camera. I’m haunted by how to tell a story using a river. It is my holy grail, what I seek, a story so intertwined with nature that one has to love both the lead character and the river equally.
Needless to say, I had an amazing weekend beyond the epiphany of my desire to take my writing deeper to merge observation and meaning, to create that art by grace that MacLean speaks of in his book. As an emerging author married to a spouse whose industry work is as intermittent as a snow squall, we are too broke to afford luxury trips. But this is the broke time of year for northern Idaho and western Montana. We are in good company with empty wallets. In fact the best of company according to MacLean:
“The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana.”
We are not far from Missoula. Our daughter wants to see us and gifts us with a night at the lodge where she often stays. It’s closed for the season and the caretakers are settled in for winter. She is dating one who is also the lodge’s chef and project manager (as in building log projects from tree to table). We’ll call him Chef Amazing because he earned that title, serving us a magnificent meal that began with mussels simmered in white wine, garlic and habanero. Even our dogs got to stay!
February 25, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a river and a person (or people). Think about MacLean’s famous line that “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Give it your own meaning. It can be a rivulet of water cutting across a city sidewalk, a farm ditch or a famous world river. Who is experiencing the water? What observations are profound? How can a river and a character merge with meaning?
Respond by March 3, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Baptism by Fire and Water by Charli Mills
Lucinda belly-crawled to the edge of the creek. Behind her she heard the metal of her DC-10 bulldozer ping in the heat. Soon the roaring wildfire would engulf the equipment meant to build a barrier. Trees exploded and flaming pitch arced above black smoke like holiday fireworks. The heat was blistering even as Lucinda waded into the creek, dipping her entire head and body in the water. Two moose stared at her, a wall of flame behind them. She whispered a silent prayer. Forgive us our trespasses against this land. Thank you for the water. May it be enough.