Sunday, April 20, 2008

Half a Mind to Ramble

There will be a forced break from reports of Singapore while I attend to a different sort of travel, freighted with more boxes, bundles, and baggage than can be fit into any overhead compartment. This spring’s west-to-east migration requires a rental truck, from Montana to Vermont. It’s a familiar story with us, one that I tried to describe in 1991, as you can read below. At the time, I thought we might have found a permanent home. Since then, however, we’ve lived three years in Japan and two in China, occupying a grand total of seven different houses.

Bass, Coots, Pimbling, and the Graft

Sarah and I stayed home this summer. For the first time in more than a decade, in a house of our own. After years of rootless migration from apartment to apartment, from one metropolitan area to another, we struck land in Missoula, Montana. We bought four rooms shaded by maple trees, within walking distance of the university. Not our dream house by any means—not the lonely cabin on a hill of pine and fir—but when we walk out into the alley, Lolo Peak looms above the garage, and a thick hedge lends the illusion of privacy. When school ended in June, we sanded the old boards beneath our feet, then refinished them with an ether-based epoxy that lent the hardwood a dizzying shine. We planted peas and tomatoes, painted the walls inside and out, entertained relatives from both coasts.

This was our second year in western Montana—after long stints in Los Angeles and Boston—and we enjoyed ourselves. Two teachers on vacation, confined to a budget but otherwise free. We harvested vegetables from the backyard, dined on elk steaks and fresh trout. During the high-water weeks of early summer, we kept our canoe wet in the rivers and lakes around Missoula. When July came, we rode down the Clark Fork in inner tubes. Not Cordura-covered float tubes, but the simple truck-tire variety that forces your head low and your knees high, like a lounge chair with the seat blown out.

I took my fly rod along, and learned to adjust my backcast to that odd angle. The long, drag-free floats fooled rainbows big enough to frighten me with their enthusiasm. I’d hold the rod in my teeth, paddling furiously for shore as the backing disappeared from the reel. Then I’d splash out of the tube and into the shallows, facing the current, keeping the rod high. Some fish you just have to fight standing up.

Sarah’s summer expired in August, according to the Montana public school schedule. Mine survived another month, past Labor Day and the first frost on the tomato vines. I should have been repairing storm windows, insulating the attic, or otherwise fulfilling my duties as a mortgagee. Instead, I devoted every day to the river. And was rewarded disproportionately. With trout, and golden eagles. With the shadows of osprey, moose, and mule deer. With my forehead warm in the sun and my toes chilling in a riffle, I knew how the black bears must feel in the huckleberry patches along the west slopes of the Flathead Range, snuffling mouthfuls of leaves and twigs and fruit against the lean days to come. A winter’s hibernation has its own appeal, true, but it’s not like spring, and it’s certainly not like late summer: warm and bountiful and urgent. You know such days can’t last. In fact, you begin to suspect that they must end in catastrophe: a September blizzard, right leg broken in a gopher hole, the tip of your favorite five-weight snapped clean off in the screen door. I wondered when I’d look up finally and see the piano falling from the sky, like those cartoon characters who are smiling and whole in one frame, flattened and sheepish in the next.

As the town began to fill with college students, my mood became more frantic. Compared to Sarah’s, my teaching schedule is a piece of cake. She is the sole administrator for a rural elementary school, both principal and secretary. She also teaches math to fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. And art to seventh and eighth. I sit behind a desk with a view of the mountainside and talk to adults about their writing for fifteen hours a week. But I resented the end of summer anyway, felt guilty for my resentment, and resigned myself to punishment.

On a warm and windless Friday, I spent an hour stalking a big native cutthroat feeding in a shallow finger of frog water, then jerked the fly from his mouth. His gill plates flashed an angry crimson. I threw the hopper to him again, but the leader landed in a heap and he high-tailed it back to the main current. Driving home from the river, I fretted insanely—all sorts of inane and anxious worries—that the house had burned, or the university shut down, or the cat run over.

Sarah suffers my addiction to water. After all, I’ve spent half my working life fishing for pay—as a guide, a mate, a deckhand, a diver. But she shares the attraction too. She knows what a relief it can be to float, to paddle, to navigate free from land. By the third week in September, she could feel the demands of her school—students, teachers, and parents—overtaking her hours. This was her second year as supervising teacher. She’d learned the deadlines and faced the expectations once already, and this time around they lacked the charm of surprise. On the Sunday before the university opened—my last day of refuge—we swung the canoe onto the car and drove north, to the Flathead Reservation. We turned east at Ruby’s Café and put in at Kicking Horse. The trout fishing had been good; I figured the bass would be feeding too.

Kicking Horse is a water-control reservoir tucked into the base of the Mission Mountains. When we fished it last, in June, the meadows around the shore were flooded. Geese brooded on their nesting platforms, daisies bloomed a foot underwater, and the bass—transplanted Easterners, hungry to spawn—slipped along the new shallows, hunting. Since then the nestlings had fledged, and the level of the lake had fallen several feet. The weeds lay folded on the surface in green and brown mats. The big patches of open water were thick now with coots, thousands of them swimming with that peculiar pumping movement of the neck. On take-off their big feet flapped comically.

Coots are one of the few birds that look ridiculous in all three elements: on the water, in the air, and especially on land. At the Los Angeles County Botanical Gardens—where we would feed crusts of bread to golden carp and pilfer oranges—I used to spread my arms and charge hooting at the resting flocks, just to see them fly. Or stand fifty yards off and fling a Frisbee into their midst. Sarah dubbed me “The Big Blue Goose”—a coot’s worst nightmare. There’s not much fun of that kind to be had in Los Angeles, and we took what we could get.

In Montana we don’t have to rely on botanical gardens for wildlife. That’s part of the reason we moved here. Back in Boston, hatching plans in our third-floor walk-up, Sarah and I pointed fingers at the map and considered our options. Where could we be happy? Alaska? Oregon? Maine? While our friends and siblings were starting families, we were ready to hit the road. Neither our thirtieth birthdays nor the prospect of hauling our furniture down three flights of narrow stairs could daunt us. We liked the thrill of relocation—closing-up shop, shedding worn-out possessions, arriving unknown and strange in a strange town. Even when we finally decided on Montana, we hedged our bets. It’s not forever, we said. If we don’t like it, we can always move.

But we do like it. We like the confluence of rivers and ranges, the intersection of migratory paths: U.S. Highway 93, Interstate 90, the Pacific Flyway. If Boston is the cradle of liberty, then Kicking Horse is the cradle of waterfowl. Here and there among the coots, the more graceful ducks—mallards and pintails, redheads and canvasbacks—congregated in small groups or paddled aloofly in pairs. The eastern shore of the lake was white with gulls resting on one leg, and some of the grassier knolls held geese. The weedy shallows were crowded with great blue herons. Some fishermen on foot scared a half-dozen croaking into the air, their bodies visibly rising and falling with each beat of their tremendous wings.

We unloaded our old spinning rods, five-foot fiberglass relics matched with Mitchell reels, made of metal. I brought my fly rod too, and a sandwich bag of poppers with rubber legs and gaudy paint jobs. The Missions were silvered with an autumn snow. We slogged with the canoe through yards of soft mud to the water’s edge, used our paddles to push off.

Just as in June, we found the bass in the shallows—in groups of two or three, but skittish this time. We might coax one to strike, but not more than one, and never the biggest. I hooked a ten-incher on a black Woolly Bugger, watched him swim up slowly and breathe marabou into his jaws. Sarah caught a few small fry on a tiny Panther Martin spinner. We put them all back. I had visions of a three-pound bass baked with black bean sauce and garnished with scallions and ginger, of the fragrant steam rising from the dish, the white meat flaking from the bone.

We continued to fish purposefully for a few hours, but by late afternoon, the bass still wouldn’t bite. They’d lost their enthusiasm and so had we.

The ducks had something to do with it. They were all going somewhere; their splashing muddied the water. They circled and squawked and beat their wings against the air, and we thought, oddly, of Paris, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Beijing. Places we had seen on our big-city salaries, but could not look forward to seeing again.

We thought of Africa too. Of those wildlife films in which the bodies of birds fill the lens: flamingos and storks, ostriches stampeding over the veldt. For once Sarah and I weren’t journeying anywhere in particular, weren’t heading south with our offspring like some far-ranging terns—Montana in September, Mexico by October, Chile come Christmas. We just watched, like two more of those folk who sit idly while the world passes them by. We had dreamed of living in northern Thailand, southern France. Of stalking the Nepalese tigerfish in the foothills of the Himalayas. Suddenly such places seemed far removed from Montana, way off at some great and regrettable distance from our lives.

As always, I did not want to stop fishing. I like to stay until sunset, until the light fades from the water and all hope is gone. Sarah was ready for home, a hot supper, the necessary preparations for the workweek. I was cranky. I wanted to push tomorrow into another season, to hook a bass big enough for a meal.

We stayed, but we didn’t talk much. Sarah sat in the bow with her back to me, wrote a long letter to her father on a legal pad. I cast randomly, without much expectation, stripping line to keep the fly above the weeds. We kept drinking and eating: bourbon from a plastic flask, cherry tomatoes from our backyard garden and trout smoked with alder chips. I paddled enough to keep us off the windward shore.

We drifted among the coots and greenheads. On a shallow bank littered with goose feathers and flat stones, we found the delicate trails of crayfish in the mud. It was a simple matter to track them down. A crayfish huddled under a rock believes that it is safe. I caught two, and Sarah held them behind the claws while I sawed through the top of a beer can with my knife. Before dropping them into the can I tore off their pincers, so they couldn’t fight.

If I say it one more time, perhaps I’ll convince myself: Sarah and I like Missoula, and our house, and the people here. The townsfolk trust you to pump your gas before you pay. That’s no small thing—in Boston and LA we grew used to paying first, to the grave assumption of dishonesty that implies. Still, we are nomadic by nature. The average American packs his duffel thirteen times before he finds that final resting place. My own family moved nearly every summer during my elementary years. By the time I reached ninth grade I’d been enrolled in seven different schools: urban, rural, Midwestern, public, private, Catholic, Lutheran. Sarah’s father was a diplomat, then an international banker. She’d seen New York, London, Paris, and Helsinki by age twelve. Before she became a teacher, she sold airline tickets to college students. If they had money to spare, Sarah encouraged them to go far, stay away as long as they could stand.

Perhaps it’s understandable then, that when September comes, our pinfeathers itch. We get half a mind to ramble. We fall into motion like flat stones skipping across a pond, or those thrushes who rise and fall in their flight across fields. We descend, struggle to regain the air, finally touch down. This behavior threatens even our mundane choices—so that the question might easily become not Where should we live? or Where could we be happy? but also Where should we go for breakfast?

Driving back to Missoula from Yellowstone Lake in July, after visiting with old friends from my days as a fishing guide in the Park, we decided against breakfast in the Lake Hotel, or at the restaurant in Mammoth, or at any of the cafés and diners in Gardiner. It’s not that we really said no to any of those familiar spots, we just never stopped the car and got out. Sarah’s maternal grandmother, Isabel Stephens—herself a great traveler who’d settled at last in central Vermont—called this behavior “pimbling.” Pimbling doesn’t involve decision-making, rather you hem and haw until the choices have been reduced by attrition, until you are left with a sole option that is almost always less desirable than the one you might have had, had you managed to make up your mind like a reasonable person.

It was almost eleven, and we’d been driving for two hours—through an elk crossing and a buffalo jam and then out the north gate of the Park. The lack of bacon and coffee was nearly stupefying. Yet we pimbled on, opting by default for another half-hour’s drive to Chico Hot Springs—where the local honeymooners say that the food is the best you can find in Montana, the best you can eat anywhere without changing out of your shorts and sandals.

As we motored north, following the Yellowstone River, my eyes hunted for pools and seams, holes where the trout might rest or feed. Sarah has said that fishing has ruined rivers for her. She can’t walk one now without reading it. Instead of water and stone, she sees eddies, pockets, and lies. I envied the driftboat sliding along a riffle, the anglers in the bow and stern, the guide at the oars. When we looked away from the river, the gray peaks of the Absarokas added teeth to our hunger. I drove almost recklessly, calling out license plates as we passed: California, Connecticut, Indiana, Vermont. We glanced into the windows of the vehicle from Vermont—a Jeep Wagoneer dusty with yellow dirt. Nine-tenths of Sarah’s family still live in the Green Mountain State, and we miss them. We didn’t recognize the young couple or the golden retriever with them, but we might have, and we applauded their industry. They’d made it this far.

We left the Yellowstone at the town of Emigrant, in the shadow of Emigrant Peak. I suppose it’s really more of an intersection than a town, but the name is good enough for an entire country. Emigrants leave, immigrants arrive. In 1982, the year we graduated from college, thirty-seven million Americans changed their addresses. Sarah’s sister Kathy, rooted in a brick home built in 1815, reproaches her: “You’re always leaving.” Sarah responds, “That’s because I always come back.”

Down the homestretch towards breakfast. The access road to Chico doubles as an airstrip. There is a windsock along the shoulder, and two arrows painted on the asphalt. The lawns were green that morning, the buildings white, the parking lot full. I slipped four quarters into a vending machine for the Sunday paper, thinking: strawberries and cream, salmon en croute, a currant scone.

Chico serves breakfast until eleven. It was a quarter after, but we weren’t worried. The hostess was friendly; she said she’d check with the cooks. But our luck failed us. Usually they have plenty of food, but that morning had been busy, there was nothing left. We walked away empty from the dining room, wandered into the saloon. Inside, two carpenters were pounding nails into the stage. No one was minding the bar. We looked longingly at the gleaming bottles, listened to the sound of hammers hitting home. Without speaking, we both fixed on the same image. In Thailand, a brand of beer touts their brew with English-language billboards: Klöster—Happiness You Can Drink. We got back in the car. And went on another twenty-five miles, to Livingston, for lunch.

I picked a crayfish out of the can and hooked him onto a bead-headed woolly bugger, by the tail. Was our urge to move only indecision, merely pimbling? We are so easily lured by what is out of sight, so hopeful that the next spot will prove a better one. We think that if we could just start afresh one more time then surely we would get it right. Two coots swam nearby, chuckling kuk-kuk-kuk. We paddled the canoe back towards the car. The crayfish danced on the end of the line. No bass took the bait.

I honestly can’t tell you what we had for dinner. After the dishes were done, Sarah graded the rest of the week’s math papers, and I shuffled my notes for a lecture on revision. We turned in at ten, set the alarm for six. The next morning, a band of elk grazed within sight of Sarah’s school. They were gone by the time the kids got there, but the teachers who arrived early to prepare lesson plans were rewarded with their bugling calls.

The week passed as we thought. The math classes learned place value and set theory while the art students tried their hands at perspective. Two daredevils broke arms swinging on the new playground equipment. I delivered my lecture, led a couple of workshops, and commented on a hundred and twenty essays arguing against rainforest logging in Borneo.

Saturday came up cool, threatening rain. A good day for yard work. We drove out to the greenhouse a few miles west of town to invest in a new hedge, replacing the one that had been sacrificed during a sewer hook-up. Whatever grows the fastest, we thought. Who knows how long we’ll hang around. Except junipers. Years of pulling junipers out of her grandmother’s pasture had soured Sarah on bushy evergreens.

The nursery was in the middle of a fall clearance. The owner said that he’d lost quite a few plants in last winter’s cold snap. He didn’t want to make the same mistake twice. He could give us a break on Siberian pea, cut us a deal on lilacs. We had some of each in the backyard already. The pea is thorny, voracious. The lilac shades our back door, perfumes the air in June. We appreciated both in their way, but they were too familiar. What else would make a good hedge?

In France, said the man, they train apple trees. Weave the branches together until they make a good, tight screen. He showed us a small stand of potted apples, mostly Spartans and Galas grafted to a hardier root stock. Their spindly trunks were no thicker than kindling.

Sarah’s grandmother had apples around her house. We keep a photo of one of her Macintosh trees in our bedroom—a confusion of pink and white blossoms. We asked how fast they would grow; when we could expect fruit.

Hell, he said. They’ll grow a foot a year if you treat them right. Might be five years before they produce a bushel, but if you’re lucky you’ll get an apple or two next year. He showed us a Spartan that had done just that—produced one apple. It hung from the pencil-thin branch like a Christmas ornament.

Sold. The nurseryman advised us to plant two trees, a yard or so apart, to mix some peat moss with the gravelly Missoula soil, to bury the roots right up to the graft. I nodded, wrote out a check. Sarah did a little dance in the parking lot. We laid the two trees in the bed of the pickup, alongside a forty-pound sack of peat moss, and drove home.

Our garden tools hung on nails in the garage. We hadn’t used them since the tomatoes went in, an entire season past. The blade of the shovel had rusted brown, the handle of the pickax shrunk inside the head. I put the business end of the pick in a bucket of water. Sarah marked off the spot for the trench. When the ax-handle had swollen tight again, we dug ourselves a hole.