Posted by: MC | March 28, 2013

Montana’s Red Lodge

Red Lodge Rodeo Grounds 3-27-2013  mmc

Yep. On the road again.  This time listening to the wide stretch of country called Montana.

Right now I’m sitting with the morning sun where it falls across this tooled leather couch and onto pine floors reclaimed from beneath years of inhabitants, each leaving behind their layers of linoleum, carpet and, in the bedroom where I’m sleeping — astroturf.  It took plenty of my friends Joe and Roxanna’s work to call these wooden boards back to life, but they’ve done it.  That’s what can happen in Montana — reclamation and remembering.

Joe and Rox’s stone and wooden abode sits where it was placed 60 years ago or so, right in front of a bluff.  Just before the land rises and just at the back of their home is a long tunnel where coal cars used to run for the first half of the 20th century.  These particular cars were the few diverted from the mine’s quarry to heat the town of Red Lodge so it could sustain the coal production that served as its original livelihood.  There were accidents.  There was black lung.  And there was plenty of coal mined and sold out from here in this fold of topography amidst the Bear Tooth and Absoroke mountains.

This is land of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation — vast under a sky so present it fills well more than half of any vista in a manner that, like a wise grandmother is both humble and comforting in its constancy.  I have yet to hear stories from Crow people on this trip, but I do know their ancestral home was what we now call eastern Ohio and that, over time and disputes with other tribes they came to this land of the Yellowstone River Valley where they lived at the time of European contact.  Now recognized by the U.S. government as the Crow Tribe of Montana, they retain rights to a reservation near Billings.  And early this year, the Tribe entered into agreements for unearthing the coal beneath their lands as well.

No longer a coal mining town, Red Lodge is a resort spot that isn’t a resort.  It’s on the road to Yellowstone and has a ski area that gets significant attention from skiers-who-know, but it’s nothing like Aspen or Whistler.  It’s a little town of 2000+ residents, an elementary school, post office, and historical sites with plaques — like the one that commemorates the site of a bank robbery on the part of Sundance and his gang.  It also has wild turkeys and deer roaming the the streets, nibbling new grasses fresh from beneath melting snowpack. Rock Creek  3-26-2013  mmc Bear and Moose show up pretty often foraging for delicacies.  The Moose go for the new growth on the tips of conifer branches.  Bear have other things in mind.  The ongoing negotiation with these cohabitants has led to another invention of sophisticated latching mechanisms, devised to secure garbage cans.  As has been the case with all their predecessors, these contraptions make taking out the trash a matter of modest acrobatics.  “The bears are beating us again though,” my friend Joe explains.  “They just throw the trash cans on their sides, jump up and down on them a few times and presto, snack time.”

Yesterday Joe and I walked toward Broadway, the stretch of road lined with shoppes alluring tourists and locals alike.  Well, most of them.  The Swanky Fork, for example, tends to draw mostly tourists.  Maybe it’s the name.  But that’s what I mean by real — this town has coffee shops and cafes that buzz with locals.  Places like the Cafe Regis draw regulars and tourists to their Montana vegan breakfast and lunch fare and then double as music venues for achingly inspirational talent like Claire Lynch, Martha Scanlon and Bill Staines.  As we passed the Cafe, Joe looked up the road and waved at the white van coming our direction.  Joe waves at everybody and everybody waves back, but this wave carried the comment, “That’s our mayor.  One heck of a heat-and-air expert, too.  Saved us more than a few times in our rehab exploits.”

Last night Gary Ferguson, one of Joe and Roxanna’s friends, joined us for dinner.  Gary lives in Red Lodge.  He knows land and listening as an advocate for wolf restoration in the Yellowstone Valley, and as a naturalist, writer and advocate for socially marginalized youth.  “Community, beauty and mystery,” Gary said to summarize what he’d learned from the youth, the land — from the beauty and agony of life’s unfolding circumstances.  Community, beauty and mystery.  Red Lodge has been showing me these things.

Like the full moon that lifted up and rode its slow arc over Montana last night, like the Yellowstone River beginning to swell with early snow melt, like the bears slowly waking from winter, Red Lodge wakes to another day of change and reliability.  It’s good to be here.  Listening to Montana carries a gift I hadn’t expected — a listening so wide it makes space and time for listening within, too.

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