Bikes, trailers, dogs, coolers: five days in Montana (some Wyoming)

Just like me, the moon’s gone plump from too many long nights and early mornings, hard to get into its jeans, and only noticed by fools and dreamers, the mad.

The sky ran down from blue to pink to jack o’lantern orange and then the bats came out and did their circus moves, and though they were blind they were perfect, they had other senses to use.

And then the chill came down which was not a real chill but a perceptible change in the temperature which still feels like a chill, the change —

Just the birds in the morning and the sound of a far-off car coming through the valley, coarse wheels on gravel.

Clouds on the mountains of Montana, the valley filled with wildfire smoke, haze. One last pocket of snow on the highest peak. The odometer says we drove a thousand miles in just three days, stopping in Coeur d’Alene and then on to Big Sky. The kids and their things spilled out like a loose burrito in the back of the car. We planned to leave the house at 5:15 AM to beat the Yellowstone crowds and made it out by 5:20—12 of us, five kids. Mountain ranges turned to ghosts by smoke.

The sun does its blood red thing, a soft warm glow in the morning. The moon, pink-gold over the canyons. Everyone in the parking lot with bikes, trailers, dogs, coolers. Clean mountain air at last, the atmosphere’s cleared from the fires but when we get on the road tomorrow, they’ll be burning all around us driving home. Twelve-hour drive, two or three breaks, tops.

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First light for August

The plane resembled a bird in the sky, reflecting back in the lake. There were a few on the dock fishing, spread out to give each other space. They were all having their moments with the lake, the morning light. A couple in the middle were pointing across the water with their camera out. Thin wisps of fog moved in one direction to the center away from the shore. I had to go back to the tire place to get it fixed. I’d been there already on Saturday, they said they’d fixed it, but come Sunday they hadn’t: it was leaking again. I got there before they opened and there was already a line. A burly guy with no neck and a crew cut looked agitated, paced by the door. I let him pressure the workers to open early, I didn’t have that kind of presence. They explained it was the corrosion around the wheel that was giving me problems, something I’d never heard of: the tire needs a clean surface to form a seal; the rusting causes unevenness. Somehow, everything was a metaphor to aging. Bad seals, leaks.

I sat in the lobby with my book waiting for them to fix the tire. It was getting warmer with the morning sun but felt nice. They had the TV on but it had no power over me, relaxing even. There were others with me waiting but we were all alone, bound by our tires.

Patti Smith was talking about moving into the Chelsea Hotel, befriending the music anthologist Harry Smith: having her first encounters with late ’60s celebrities, about to become one herself. In her own kind of waiting room.

Sam Shepard just died: and I’d texted Donnie about him over the weekend, asking if he could confer with his wife (a Shepard scholar) if the play Cowboy Mouth, the phrase, had come from Dylan’s song, or vice versa. Donnie acted like he didn’t know the reference. It was from Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. And Patti said in her book it was in the Chelsea Hotel that Dylan wrote that song. There was a banner with Shepard on the homepage of my work computer I glanced at, then moved on. I’d worked on a few of his plays, read many. Didn’t feel sentimental.

They were back to report progress on my tire: a nail, not corrosion. I was glad for that, they could patch it and I could fend off death for another day, get back to work. The guy who worked on it asked if Anton called me yet, offering to buy my Volvo. Anton was the one who worked on it Saturday. He had a Volvo like mine he said, loved those cars. I said I was ready to move on. Falling in love with cars is a bad idea, they take more than they give. But I wanted it to go to a good home, it was from my mom and John, an east coast car: we’d towed it across the country, paid some shady eastern European with a missing thumb two thousand dollars for the tow. There were mice nests in the glove compartment. But we’d toted our kids around West Seattle in it, a freaking tank of a car, indestructible. I was going to donate it for the tax write-off, I told Anton. But if he would buy it and love it, that would be better. Maybe I’d see him again some day and he could help me work on my next car, an old Mercedes.

And I thought about all that driving back by the lake, imagining the Volvo cleaned up and happy, running well, glad it was a Monday, I loved my job, and this week we’d be driving 12 hours to Montana: and I told myself not to be a dick in the car, to be loving and present with my kids, though I’d have to tell myself that again and again.

Photo by Loren Chasse, Waitts Lake, Washington.


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One window ajar, first light on Pine Lake

I sat outside under a tree with King Tubby playing on my Bluetooth speakers and crocosmia fronds tickling the air, the moon a half melon, the whites of my nails. Talked to my dad across the country, the sound of the boxed wine bladder emptying into his glass, easing into a deeper layer for our chat: me with my beer and foldout chair, the two of us subsuming each other. The strange echo of days: dad, remarking on a sound file he found on his iPod of him and nana, an accidental recording but a real gift to hear her voice, he said. And I told him of the recordings I have of my now-gone stepdad John I can’t listen to, can’t go back, don’t have the heart to. And when I said goodbye it seemed abrupt though it had been 48 minutes my phone said—and I went to check in on the girls, caught under the shadow of my rule with Dawn gone for the day: the consummate project manager, checking in on status, fine-tuning, redirecting. The sunshade I had to fit into the skylight above our master bathroom to keep the heat at bay. The electronic apparatuses I unearthed from their home in a shoebox hidden in the closet, resolved to reconcile the cords and memory sticks, the attachments. Splayed across my desk, but it can wait until tomorrow. Back to the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe my hair stylist Donnie convinced me to read; mom got me the book one Christmas but it lay unwanted in the garage dog-eared at page 11. An oil change and droll Sunday afternoon of tasks in the suburbs. Roads closed until “late 2018,” orange signs, traffic, air conditioners. Forty-two days without rain: dad says they got 10 inches this month in Pennsylvania. Maybe the climate really is fucked up now for good, he remarks. Eberhard says the same about Germany: rain and cold at times. Crows, dragon-flies, jets: when the wind blows the cottonwoods clap, the crocosmia fronds make circular patterns on my navel whispering water me, they’re invasive, they “propagate by division.” The news says eight years ago was the hottest day in Seattle, 103: the same day we left for Germany the first time, the sabbatical in 2009. Driving down to Italy, to Como for a night, stressed out as hell with two kids and no cell phone service and the European roads, arriving in Tuscany at Miriam’s villa and sucking down a Heineken in their swimming pool when Lily (4) went under and Miriam (33) saved her life. And we didn’t think much of it then, we just felt lucky.

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“More Fandom than Ekphrasis” | Bruce Jenkins on music and memoir

In case you missed it, check out this great piece by writer Bruce Jenkins inspired by a recent blog-a-day project I completed earlier this month. It’s not just being flattered by the fact Bruce riffed off my project, but that he shares a similar love of music and memoir. And has two kick-ass blogs you’ll find here and there. And has a sardonic POV about prog rock, which is its own thing. Enjoy, and thanks for reading. — Bill

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Straw-colored grass, a bed of needles

The grill-roasted beer can chicken technique.

The owl-eyed veterinarian talks too fast, wears her hair in a bun. The bun’s so tight it makes her eyes bulge. It’s always the same, we care about our dog and cat’s health, we start with good intentions. But her words run together like boxcars blurring into one and we glaze over tired and confused, feeling cheated by the bill. I consider the bad timing of our last office visit once the cat Roxy goes missing a day or two later. We heard her shriek in the night outside, Dawn leapt out of bed, then went with the dog searching but turned up no results. I scanned for the body, the collar, the following afternoon. We agreed to go to the Mexican place for dinner and didn’t talk about it, didn’t toast, seemed weird. But when we got home she was there by the back door wanting in, rubbed against us, went for her food. And then we all went outside again and had margaritas.

Mom left today and I’m rising later with the sun, the birdsong tamped down. To the lake for my morning walk it’s glass, worn down. A good ten feet of beach, pebbles and pine cones, logs that make for natural seats, a knobby root shaped like a saddle. A few fishermen on the dock, a far-off crow. The light in the morning, at night, goes that trippy Maxfield Parrish golden pink, greens and blues. The sun settles into itself like the flame on a candle when it’s close to the bottom, but still has a way’s to go.

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Falling down days, deep July

A stark, backcountry walk along the roads of Grand Mound, Washington outside Centralia: its claim to fame the halfway point between Seattle and Portland. Across the road from the Great Wolf Lodge resort, a +21 legal weed pop-up called King Cronic (sic) with chain link fence, two diseased-looking dogs barely able to get up and bark. The sickly look of the morning sky, clammy clouds: the marine layer, ‘onshore flow,’ muggy. Thirty-some days with no measurable rain and all the lawns gone gold around the edges, working its way to the center. Reminds me of how fast a person’s hair can turn white, but unlike grass, it doesn’t revert back. I imagine if I just kept walking how my life would reduce down to a few considerations and I would undo myself. And why the idea of walking forever holds appeal. How the weeds are emboldened with no rain and crack underfoot, and on the shoulder there’s a CD face-up: The Amityville Horror film, and flies, and the smell of urine, a deer corpse, the contents of the cage long ago emptied. We’ve been out just 24 hours to an indoor water park and I thought a morning walk would do me good but now I’m not so sure. Check out’s at 11 and it’s going on 10, and I hurry back to see if I can catch Charlotte and Dawn for a final run down the Howling Tornado. It’s been three years since our last visit, and you realize how those times are numbered. Lily’s up in the room in a menstrual malaise or pre-teen, or combination: and Charlotte had some of her kid years lopped off with her best friend and sister disinterested in dolls and bath toys, now buried in her phone or blow dryer. On the drive back Charlotte wants me to sit in the back and we cuddle for a time but it all goes to hell by Tacoma and she’s threatening to get car sick if I don’t turn off the AC (claims the smell makes her sick) and it becomes a battle of wills neither of us will lose and I say fine, get sick: I’ll rub your face in it like warpaint, and she films me on Dawn’s phone then plays it back nonstop and I have to look at myself, my jawline gone slack like the elastic in my underwear, the raw truth to how I look and act, it’s not worth filming.

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You think that you can front when Revelation comes?

Washington monument, our nation’s capital

Well into the afternoon the house still smelled like bacon. I sat and watched the lawn sprinkler, tried to think about nothing. The last day in D.C. I got up at 6 and walked down to the White House, the prostitutes and full moon were still out, both looked funny in the morning like they didn’t belong there. I got closer to the White House than I thought, a small tribute to peace across the street, a homeless guy with a Trump T-shirt, some asleep in the grass, wrapped in sheets…and with the ballroom lights on inside, the fountain out front, the red flowers around the base, I wondered if he was in there: but unlike other presidents here was only repulsion, the idea of meeting him, it reminded me of the Tolkien film from the night before, when the camera pans and the color palettes shift: Gollum, Frodo and Sam cutting through the Dead Marshes…showdown at Helm’s Deep with the Uruk-hai…Saruman’s servant Wormtongue…and the camera pans to the puppet mouth of Don Jr. the day the story broke about the Russians, the dirt on Clinton, the dirt on Trump. And in the morning it’s 85 already with a heat index of 100 and everyone is out running, and it doesn’t take long for the ice in my iced coffee to melt, for it to go muddy brown. Here, a quote on the Treasury building by its Roman columns, Bancroft: Commerce defies every wind, outrides every tempest, and invades every zone. And back to the Smithsonian castle at the top of my loop, where we tried to end the night but couldn’t, we stepped out on the garden terrace with the full moon yellow and I said this has nightcap written all over it—but it was hours before we were through still, and well past the time the bartender in the hotel lobby made that sawing motion with his hand across the neck saying no more, last call, and someone from our group negotiated another round, “be careful what you wish for.” There’s a spot on the map that’s marked The House Where Lincoln Died, and it sounds like a book. And they’re setting up a circus on the National Mall, and there’s army helicopters buzzing like horseflies, the threat of a storm all week but it won’t break, and I have to get my passport renewed so I can go back to the Alps but now you can’t wear glasses in your picture, and if you smile you can’t show teeth, so I decide I’ll do neither, and frown.


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