Montana Sojourn

Back from my trip to Montana and I’m ten days older, a helluva lot wiser and a great deal more appreciative of the beauty, wonder and diversity all around us.

I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous.  But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive.  On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.

The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state.  I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood.  There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long.  The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now).  I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there.  The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case.  When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.

Montana had worked its magic on me.

This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively.  The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too:  we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt.  A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it.  And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer.  I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.

Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming.  Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up.  Lee, you’re a gem.

Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest.  And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.

Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured.  Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak.  We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place.  A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old.  Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.

“Come on downstairs.”  We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear.  John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.

Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler.  Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years.  We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat.  I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you.  Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction.  And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it.  After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”

I think I might have stopped breathing.  Of course I had.  I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…”  Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”

I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar.  What a lost opportunity.  Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”

Well.  There it is.

Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes.  Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted.  Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit.  Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it.  “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor.  “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply.  There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons.  While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—

And there he was.  James Crumley.  Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness.  To me, Crumley is the man.  For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen.  He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well.  Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking.  Ah, Jim…

I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture.  Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait.  To your good soul

Met any number of terrific people in our travels.  We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell.  I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures.  Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.

Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent.  They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business.  People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington.  They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors.  I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.

Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back.  I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan.  The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive.  I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.

Author photo courtesy Ken Harman (Thanks, Cap’n!)

4 comments

  1. Bev

    Cool Cliff! Cool photo and interesting post. I think I’m struggling a bit imagining that one could be reborn in MONTANA, after coming from Saskatchewan, but you are making a good case. Perhaps I need to go back. And…just a sec…you wrote a WESTERN novel? Do I have the wrong Cliff Burns?

  2. B. Wright

    did you happen to get a picture of John Fryer? I would love to see this man. I’ve heard a lot about him. loved your post also, Thanks

  3. Cliff Burns

    Ah, sorry, no picture of Big John. Somehow it would have seemed like I was imposing…likewise, no picture of Richard S. Wheeler, as much as I admire his work.

    If you ever get a chance to visit John’s book store in Livingston, it is a trip you’ll remember. No computers, no credit cards accepted, just a hundred year old cash register and helpful ladies to assist you with your purchases. John is a class act, a superb raconteur; everyone in Livingston knows and admires him. What a guy.

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