Western Lonely: Montana to Washington: the Real West.
Robert Fletcher sums up my travels through the beloved West this past week. My range is from Montana to Washington, west to east and back again, covering 1,900 miles give or take a few.
Western land was made for those
Who like land wild and free,
For cattle, deer, and buffalo,
For antelope and me;
For those who like a land the way
That it was made by God
Before men thought they could improve
By plowing up the sod.
I want the rivers running clean,
I want a clear, blue sky,
A place to draw a good, deep breath
And live, before I die.
I want the sage, I want the grass,
I want the curlew’s call,
And I don’t want just half a loaf,—
I’ve got to have it all.
These cities seem to ear me down
And I can’t stand their roar,
They make me have the itching foot
To get back West once more.
I hate the milling herds in town
With all their soot and grime,
I wouldn’t trade a western trail
For Broadway any time.
Just give me country big and wide
With benchland, hills and breaks,
With coulees, cactus, buttes and range,
With creeks, and mountain lakes,
Until I cross the Great Divide,
Then, God, forgive each sin
And turn me loose on my cayuse
But please don’t fence me in.
by Robert H. Fletcher, from Corral Dust, 1936 edition
Let’s begin in Montana, with a drive from Missoula towards Craig, Montana, that mecca for serious flyfishers of all genders. On the Missouri River, where the big ones lie, in riffles, mid-stream, and occasionally along the banks in the shade. Rainbows, Browns and White Fish. A river big enough to skunk you on a bad day. Big enough to reward you on a good one.
On the way is Trixi’s, advertising painted on a delivery truck, parked alongside Highway 200, beckoning you to stop awhile, eat awhile and remark on the new air conditioning that replaced the swamp cooler that used to blow so hard the balls on the pool table moved with ghostly meter. But things change. A friend of mine once said, “They have the worst French fries in the world.” I prefer to remember the burgers or the Bob Marshall 24 oz steak. Who could eat 24 ounces I always wonder? It’s the thirty foot wooden bar from another century, and the tables that have heard the whispers of love while a band like Noreen the Outlaw Queen plays some Saturday night. Only in Ovando, Montana where Lewis minus Clark passed by in about 1805. Or perhaps it was 1806 on the way back home, up the Blackfoot towards the Missouri River, bound for the Mississippi. It is a lonely place in winter.
Retracing my steps west I greet other old friends—the ever inviting space ship in Wallace, Idaho, parked in front of the Red Light Garage Café downtown, almost ready to launch. A stairway to heaven is open for you. Tacos are famous here. Latte’s too.
Pausing for sleep in of all desolate places, Ritzville, WA. The Top Hat Motel has the kind of reviews on Trip Advisor that make you curious. It’s not a chain on I-90, no, it’s a mom and pop (we like to say) sort of dusty motel, in the town itself. Just up the street, off the Interstate from Jakes Café. Grain elevators form a backdrop, and trains rumble through with regularity, and the rooms are dated but clean, with all the electronic amenities you have grown to love—refer, microwave, a/c, and a small vintage color TV with a Dish TV remote. Yes, you can transport yourself to other realities as you stretch out on the queen bed, tired after hot, monotonous driving along vast stretches of sage and grass and openness and big blue sky (but of course not quite as large or spacious as Montana).
I suggest you rumble down the street to Jake’s Café, (one exit west of the Starbucks exit) open 24 hours, order the dinner special, which just might be, if you are lucky, the Cheeseburger Special with soup, salad or fries for a whopping $9. Creamy tomato soup— homemade, with chunks of tomatoes, celery, onion in a creamy sauce. Cheeseburger with bacon, thin-sliced ham, fresh leaf lettuce, onion slice, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo. There is no pretense here, and the booths have views of the dusty road to Ritzville, the trucker’s rigs parked out back, the Texaco sign illuminating the dimming sky. Your waitress might be the thin, dark hared woman who I imagine has served thousands and thousands of meals to families with kids, travellers in need of a stretch a restroom and a meal, truckers, and the guy who sells seeds and drives a big white truck with a seed cleaning business logo (I can only presume wheat seeds in this bread-bowl of a place), and the single older farmers, tired after a long day, perhaps on the combine, churning up the year’s crop, which equals survival in this place.
If you take a moment to drive down the three streets of downtown Ritzville, you will see storefront after storefront boarded up, windows papered up, signs of a population that has moved on to somewhere without a forwarding address. The noble, old movie theatre marque that reads, Closed for Harvest. I hope it means this 2015 harvest, not last year or five years ago. We all need movies theatres to transport us now and again. I believe in films, showing in the places in which they were intended to be viewed. My heart aches for Ritzville—for what it once was as evidenced by brick and mortar, and thousands of acres of wheat blowing in the stiff wind, acres of golden stubble left behind.
Then finally back on the road towards home, planning rest stops, coffee stops, watching for familiar landmarks, signs along the trail. The ones that say, Welcome back traveller. We missed you. Safe journey. Come again soon.