Red Lodge Part Four: All the Rest

The last few days have been filled with a bunch of stuff. I’ve eaten at different restaurants every day and done my best to walk off the calories to mixed success, for one.

Tommy and I also traveled to Yellowstone National Park, a trip that started at 8:30 in the morning (I had four hours of sleep by the time I woke up and I wasn’t in a great mood) and ended 13 hours later. It had been years since I had been. I was a kid, traveling with my uncle and his wife, and I remember very little about it beyond him clipping a deer with his car on accident. The deer ended up being fine. So did the car.

I recall geysers and hot springs…or rather the smell of them, that acrid smell of sulfur and the volatile mud and water that made them such a spectacle. Still, I needed a refresher course and Tommy had never been. The Beartooth Highway had only just opened the day I arrived in Montana. As it has hits lists to be known as both one of the most beautiful drives in Alaska and one of the most dangerous, we had to go that way. Of course.

The drive wasn’t terrible. Though we hit elevations where snow was still present in great amounts, the road itself was clear of ice. Lack of visibility in some areas and a variety of tight curves made attention necessary, but between that and a cautious speed, there wasn’t much to worry about.

I made friends at the lookout point…

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And enjoyed the view…

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And once we got up high enough, I found out winter wasn’t quite over for me. I also found an abandoned ski lift post that I had to climb, fear of heights and safety be damned.

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God, and when we got into the park, there were just so many different sights to see. We drove all over that place. The craziest thing was that there was such a monumentally diverse level of scenery. All in the same state you’ve got towering mountains, open fields, rolling hills, rivers, waterfalls, forests and canyons. You’d think you had traveled to any number of places. It was breathtaking. On several occasions, it made me speechless, an amazing thing in itself.

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We saw a lot of animals. The most heavily populated seemed to be the bison.

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Pebble Creek:

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We went up and checked out Mammoth Hot Springs.

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Sheepeater Cliff:

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And even Old Faithful, driving up right as the magnificent bastard erupted. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a picture, but it was a sight to behold.

Fuck, I only just now realized I didn’t even get a picture of the geyser while it was sitting dormant. Ah, well. I did get pictures of a mud volcano, Dragon’s Breath Cave, a sulfur lake, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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And though we decided against going back the Beartooth Pass way, opting instead to return to Red Lodge through Cody, Wyoming, the drive out was no less beautiful. We saw sprawling, tranquil waters.

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And beautiful mountains.

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In fact, though we were road-tired as all hell by the time we stumbled into the house, I think it would be fair to say our spirits were invigorated by the sheet beauty we had been witness to the whole day.

Then I stayed up that night and spent some time to myself. In the quiet, there, everything else started to slip away and the gravity of my whole vacation kind of hit. Where I was, why I was there, and what it meant to me. All the emotions I had suppressed came out in a fucking rush for a couple hours. I reached out to the first person who came to mind and they talked me through everything, helped me work through things and swapped stories with me. Eventually I was able to fall asleep.

The next day I made it a point to visit my grandparent’s grave site. It was the first time I had been able to in the nearly three years since my grandmother passed, in the two and a half years since my grandfather passed. I elected to go by myself, and I walked, a good 45 minutes to an hour, up a winding hill and past houses so old they have historical signs out front telling how they came to be.

When I reached the cemetary, the sky was starting to grow overcast, but it wasn’t raining. I was the only one there and, save for the mostly muted sounds of passing traffic, it was deeply quiet. A mountain raised up in the background of where their remains were laid to rest. They were in a family plot, a handful of Mayers and a bunch of Hickoxes, just to the right and back from an old mausoleum. Red Lodge being the one-time wild West town that it is, there were many graves from the 1800s and early 1900s that I walked past. My grandparents’ seemed too new. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel fair.

I wept there, alone but not, with them but in a capacity I couldn’t decide on. I wanted so desperately to believe in the Heaven my grandmother believed in, but I was also reminded by what she said: when you pass, it’s like a deep sleep. When the second coming of Christ occurred, you would wake up as if from a nap.

Which means that even if there is a Heaven, she wasn’t there. Not yet. So I was there with memories and ashes, surrounded by the dead and wishing so desperately I had spent more time with them when they were alive. I’ve never felt so alone, I don’t think, than standing in front of them wishing I could ask their advice. Wishing they could tell me things would be alright.

I thought, too, then, about the last time I spoke to my grandmother. She had had a heart attack and I didn’t get to speak to her long. A minute, maybe? Maybe a minute and a half. It wasn’t long. Her first questions were to make sure I was alright and to tell me she loved me. And I lied to her. One of the very last things I said to her was a lie. I told her I was fine. That my books were being published, that I was going to be set for life. That she didn’t have to worry about me anymore, and I told her I loved her, which was true, and we hung up, and she was gone within a couple hours.

I didn’t even get to speak to my grandfather. He was too feeble and delirious to handle a phone. My uncle relayed my love and says he believed my grandfather understood and he let go.

I couldn’t be there for either of them. It had been over a year since I’d even seen them, and I thought about how my grandmother would call me when I was living in Los Angeles and Seattle and want to ask a million questions and I would get impatient and cut the conversations short. I thought about that and I fucking wept again.

That was not an easy day for me, and it isn’t easy now to write about it. I miss them so much. I love them still, so much.

So.

Anyway.

Tommy and I slept in yesterday. I leave tomorrow, so I started gathering up the souvenirs I bought and the things I’ve decided to save. I mailed off one box of old things to someone I think will appreciate them with the love they deserve and I’ll mail off another one to myself a little bit later. And then Tommy and I drove out to a little town maybe 5-10 minutes from Red Lodge, got a steak and a few beers and watched some pigs race. And let me tell you, unlike racehorses, these pigs had awesome names. I mean, look at this shit:

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And I thought they were going to be big ol’ hugs snuffing around the track. NOPE. THEY’RE THE BEST.

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I have a traumatic pig story. This is the exact fucking opposite. Pig races. Montana, you are the best.

I’ll be back in Alaska tomorrow night and blog posts will return to whatever other nonsense I write about. Love and art and angst.

Rest in peace, Jean Marshall Burnside Mayer and Richard Thomas Mayer. Thanks for giving me a life.

Red Lodge Part One: Downstairs

Around 12AM today and for the first time in 14 or 15 years, my plane landed and I set foot on Montanan soil. I was in Billings, destined for Red Lodge, headed to my grandparents’ home, my grandfather’s childhood home, the house I would visit every summer for a month for several years.

Red Lodge is a small town about an hour, hour and a half outside of Billings. The road there is surrounded by collapsed and abandoned mines and fields full of cows. When the taxi service picked me up to drive me in, he almost hit a baby deer on our way in. It’s old country out here still. Not a lot of people, not a lot of noise. I like it.

The town has just over 2,000 people as permanent residents. It was founded in the late 1800s and had a riotous nature for many years due in large part to an excess of saloons and coal miners, and an uneasy truce with the Crow tribe of Native Americans. The first marshall had a nickname of “Liver-Eater”. It was that kind of place.

My grandfather was born in Red Lodge in December of 1921. That meant he lived through the Great Depression that devastated Red Lodge’s population by around two-thirds, miners packing up and leaving once their mines got shut down.

The population seems to have hovered around 2,000-3,000 ever since, and large chunks of the city remain in the past. Old houses, old furniture, old styles. It’s why I loved coming here as a kid. It was like traveling through time.

I got to the house around 4:30AM. Couldn’t sleep. Decided to walk around, grow familiar with this old building again.

Here’s the house from the outside, along with two sheds I’ve never been inside of, will probably never be inside of, and probably contain lots of cool, old stuff.

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That last picture is kind of awesome. The main door, the only one my uncle has a key for, pulls outwards. It’s  also got a big-ass tree growing in front of it. If anyone ever wants entry, they’ll have to cut the poor thing down and cut the padlock off of the double-doors next to it.

I entered the house and stepped into, uh, a closed veranda, would be the closest way to describe it.

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My uncle and aunt have already tossed or sold a bunch of stuff in the house. In the righr corner,  you can sort of make out some boxes that they’ve packed up. In the white cabinets, there wasn’t a whole lot left. I found a 10 cent novel installment from 1926 that was in excellent condition,  save for some tears at the creases, as well as a mint container from 1907 and holy shit? Prince Albert in a can? I get that joke now.

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I took my prizes (and my suitcase, natch) into the house, which opens up into the kitchen.

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Above the door in the second picture, you can see a little sign that says, “Welcome home, Dick and Jean”. They were married for 63 years.

On either side of the sign, you can see a black and white cow. My grandmother loved – specifically – black and white cows. Our house in Anchorage was lousy with them. Figurines. Plates. A cover for the lightswitch that always made me feel like I was flicking the poor animal in the udders.

There used to be a little table in this kitchen. We would always stock up on cereal. I had many a breakfasts here.

I turned to the right instead of going straight and walked into the dining room area.

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I never spent much time in this room, but my grandmother used to have people over sometimes and they would sit and chat for hours in here. The door you see in the top picture leads down to a basement. Since it’s probably dark and full of spiders (but also fossils), I’m thinking I’ll wait until Tommy gets here before trying to hear down. The little table next to the door used to have a rotary phone on it. My uncle must have tossed it once the phone service was disconnected. Too bad. I’m pretty sure some of my friends and readers have never seen one before.

The cabinet seen in the last photo has a bunch of old, old dolls and some china. My grandmother used to collect all sorts of things like that. I also found a newspaper from 1918, right near the end of World War I, talking about the war. In the bottom of one of the glass dishes, I found a pair of matching matchbooks, one with my grandfather’s name on it, the other with my grandmother’s. I left them there. It seemed the right thing to do.

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This is the living room. The lights are burnt out currently, but my phone apparently has an amazing camera. You can see the piano that has long since been used (but still works and is in tune). The desk next to it with the photos on it used to have a box television with rabbit ears. I sat on that musty looking orange couch and fought against the static to watch the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in 1998. Could have been 1997, but I’m pretty sure I recall it being Jordan’s sixth championship.

Lastly, this room, which connects both to the living room and the kitchen.

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That is, indeed, a toilet with a curtain around it. I felt awkward using it as a child and feel awkward about it still as an adult. I’ll stick to the upstairs one.

You can see the bed and the bookcase behind it. That’s where I really found some interesting things. A lot of the stuff on the bookcases were meticulous record-keeping logs. It looked as if my grandfather’s mother may have been a teacher at some point. His father may have been in charge of a store. There is a shop list of how much of a product  (corn, shelled; flour; coal, etc.) was going to which resident at what weight and for how much. There is a log of which residents have how many inches of water to pan from in the river. If you like shows like Deadwood, it’s incredibly interesting stuff.

I also found about a hundred, maybe two hundred old photographs. I mean photographs from the 1890s-1940s. They were in pristine condition. Absolutely stunning, but I began to feel incredibly invasive. Some of these photos were of family members I’ve never known or heard of, whom I would never know or hear of. Others were of… okay, did you know that people would get pictures taken and then put on postcards to send? Because it looks like that’s exactly what happened. I’m not even sure that people were sending postcards of themselves. It’s the equivalent of you going to a store, finding a postcard with a picture of the guy who mows your yard and sending it to your sister in another state with a completely unrelated message on the back.

Then you get cool little peeks into the past like this:

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That last was printed on what feels to be a thin copper sheet. Incredible stuff.

And you know, that’s just the beginning. This town has a lot of little memories. There’s still half a house for me to cover, but this is a lot already. I’ll save the rest for a couple more entries. Hope you’ve enjoyed a little peek at my childhood and the history around it.

The Wedding Bells Are Ringing

So I fly down to Pittsburgh tomorrow. Well, that’s not accurate. I’ll fly down to Chicago tomorrow and then catch a second plane (doubling my chance of a death via Langoliers) to Pittsburgh where I will arrive the morning of the third.

You ask yourself, “Why Pittsburgh?” Well, I like the Penguins. “Yeah, but what are your feelings on the Steelers? Do you like them, too?” to which I reply, hahaha no. Fuck no. The Steelers suck all of the dicks (sorry, Steelers fans. At least you have the most Super Bowl wins?).

In actuality, I’m flying down to hang out with my friend RJ, affectionately known as Dr. Chuck Toddles, tie connoisseur, dolphin hunter, and doctor of law and figuring shit out by day, crime-fighting Falcon Man by night. There’s a story behind all of that, but it’s dumb, so we’ll move on. See, this is a very special week for my friend. His birthday is on the 4th, inching him ever nearer to 30 and, beyond that, a likely untimely death. Then, on the 8th, he ties the knot. Gets hitched. Buys a ball to hook to a chain to attach to his…ankle? Hoof? I’m bad at this.

My boy is getting married! My (two year elder) child has grown and found the love of his life and has agreed to nuptialize her. Side note: nuptialize is a new verb. Go forth. Use it in your debates with marriage purists.

This is exciting news. Also, I fucking love weddings. I tend to get a little too drunk and a little too slutty at weddings, but seeing as how this is in a strange city I’ve never been in, and ignoring the convenience of the hotel room I have by the airport, I should be fine.

The wedding is made even greater by the congruence of friends from two opposite ends of the continent. Phil has already flown down from Alaska (where our friend Matt and I will also be coming from) and asked his girlfriend to marry him. That rapscallion! That romancer! That Duke of Debonair! She said yes, of course, because love is real. It’s real! And it’s beautiful and a little bit weird, which makes it perfect.

Brolin, meanwhile, is coming from South Carolina. You geography majors might recognize South Carolina as being “not Florida” but a few years back Brolin and I drove from Alaska to Florida in four and a half days so he could move his family down there. It was a stressful ride, during which I crashed into a ditch literally right next to a herd of bison, and one in which we got stranded in a podunk town in Middle of Fuck-All, Montana where we proceeded to get drunk in a bar with no less than thirty stuffed animal heads. So I’m counting South Carolina as Florida. It’s Florida, if Florida was on a gator-free diet, which is Florida enough for me.

I actually have no fucking idea if South Carolina has alligators. I’m going to assume if it does, they’re tourists.

Anyway, I’m excited for this trip. I’m excited to take a week and a half off work, I’m excited to travel somewhere new, and most of all I’m excited to see my friends, especially during such an important, amazing event in RJ’s life.

And let me tell you something about ol’ Falcon Man. I’ve known him for something like 7 years now. We’ve been drinking buddies from jump. I’ve driven across town to split a bottle of whiskey with him regardless of what time I needed to wake up in the morning for work, because he needed it. We looked into moving to Australia just to get the fuck away from Alaska. We packed everything into a shitty car and drove from here to Los Angeles in a move that changed my life in a lot of ways. THAT wasn’t an easy move, either, with the vehicle having no less than three horrible things happen to it IN CANADA. I like Canada and Canadians, but Canada is not God’s country unless God is a moose.

And God might be a moose. I’m not ruling it out.

I will go into my experiences in Los Angeles at a later date, but RJ and I lived in the a shady part of town for five months. He helped support me until I could get a job, and when we separated ways so that he could move to Seattle and I could move elsewhere in the city where I wouldn’t be shot at (again), we had one last breakfast and shook hands before parting.

Almost a year later, RJ gave me a place to live in Seattle after I got fired from my job for embezzlement. We moved to Redmond together. We turned Netflix into DrinkingGameFlix which is something we’ve never actually called it ever in the history of ever, but it seems appropriate, so I’m shoehorning it in here. It’s my blog and I’m mad with power.

We’ve lived together in three states, pounded liquor in four states and a foreign country, and have been there for each other’s tears, insecurities, failures, accomplishments, ambitions, fits of rage and moments of hope and love. Shit, RJ saved my life once. If he hadn’t, I would have never started a blog and where would my beautiful readers be? Bereft of…whatever it is I give you, that’s where.

RJ is family to me. I didn’t hesitate to drop the money to fly down for this. I fought to make sure I’d have the time off to celebrate both wicked birthday and wedding bless. I’m honored to have even received the invite and I’m so stoked to be there for this moment. If you read this, I love you, man, and I’m glad you’ve found your one. Here’s to the future!