Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Carson and Bob Arnold once upon a time out on the windy plains

Take a ball of string
let it go — that was our

WE LEFT WYOMING through West Yellowstone where Susan wanted a photograph in the town of two road signs indicating "Leaving Wyoming" and the other, "Welcome to Montana." We like the Wyoming sign because of the bronco rider who also appears on the license plate. We once had neighbors who took their first trip out west for two weeks hunting, and for the journey they bought a large used pickup truck topped off with a camper. Each year they headed west in the fall to hunt until there just wasn't any more space on their garage or over the doors of the house to nail up elk racks and various other horns. By that time horses and trailers were bought and the couple started to don rigid cowboy hats, and of course it was only a matter of time before they got sick of our partisan New England wooded valley and left for the west. We heard it was to Wyoming.

From West Yellowstone we were to drive that afternoon to Big Sky, Montana which didn't look more than fifty miles away. We decided on Big Sky since, after all, it was a nickname of sorts for Montana, plus it was the title of a once popular novel by A.B. Guthrie — who I didn't think lived in Big Sky — having him confused with Chet Huntley, who had. Choteau was the town Guthrie lived in, a town much farther north on Willow Creek. A friend told us once while traveling with his teenage son about a visit they made to A.B. Guthrie — totally unannounced, and according to this friend's report the writer and his wife were amiable, treating the two to a few hours of Montana hospitality. At that point in Guthrie's life, around 1980, he was past his prime in writing the distinguished historical novels of Montana and the west; the type of books that would star Kirk Douglas when made into a film by Howard Hawks. The type of book or film that is rarely read or watched anymore. By the time our friend knocked at Guthrie's door, he was publishing mystery entertainments like No Second Wind and was a specialist on small town Montana life, and I guess he was available to talk with.

As Guthrie was fading away in the eyes of many on the literary scene, Thomas McGuane was picking up, and like Guthrie he earned a bit of money in the film world with his screenplays. For awhile in the 1970s, McGuane single-handedly invented the modern western script — though his westerns might wrangle from the past or present, his interpretations of the west are upbeat and generally acquainted with Montana. My favorite film from a McGuane script is Tom Horn (and come to think of it: Missouri Breaks) which has everything to do with Wyoming and nothing with Montana but McGuane might have identified with the real life figure of Tom Horn especially played through the eyes of Steve McQueen. Not a great film, but McQueen is pokey enough and striking. In a McGuane script come wily unpredictable lines that A.B. Guthrie would never use, and in Guthrie's early novels are body and tenure that McGuane's followers think he has finally achieved in his succession of novels and short stories, plus a fine book of essays on sports — An Outside Chance — sport, like rodeo and flyfishing. In the books of A.B. Guthrie and Thomas McGuane you measure just how big, big sky Montana is.

Most readers are delighted to fall into the hands of Norman Maclean and his book A River Runs Through It. The secret of this book is its middle ground of Guthrie and McGuane, and most of us know by now it was written by a retired English professor with nearly unbearable patience and dexterity to the scribbled line. Maclean's boyhood, for anyone who read the book the year it came out, was then perfect for someone like Robert Redford to play one of the parts in the film — since like Redford, the storytelling is a little too finished. However, the idea lay fallow and Redford developed into the director of a film from the book. Now all these writers struck a chord with Hollywood, and for Norman Maclean the final product of his book resulted in a film appearing after his death. I'm not sure he would be the type to become excited about all the fanfare. You will know almost enough about a person on the decisions they make and the following book by Maclean: Young Men and Fire was again from Montana, though the subject wasn't as allegorical as boys and their fishing lines — this posthumous book was about smokejumpers — fourteen young men who lost their lives fighting a forest fire and revealing some truths about life and death. It would make a terrific film. It might be a film about westerners and not movie stars, and it could have a principal of young men, hardships, families and the livelihood of a wilderness. There would be no heroes, Paul Bunyans or crackpots as in the films made from Guthrie, McGuane and the first Maclean book — if it wanted to, it might be one of the few effective movies spun from Montana.

As we drive a nearly desolate road shared with tractor-trailer truck drivers steering like us through a course split of rainy fir trees I begin to wonder about other writers from this state, perhaps less popular, with none of their works, so far, engineered into films. We're already in Big Sky — population not much, and a few writers predictable to the area pop up: James Welch, William Kittredge and Ivan Doig; however these will do just fine, especially Doig whose book This House of Sky is, I believe, one of the finest memoirs ever written from Montana, or anywhere. I can say nothing more than the book was written as powerfully as religion and love. A writer could compose this one book in a life and perhaps be content. I wouldn't think again about Ivan Doig and his first rate book after leaving Big Sky — it turns out there isn't a whole lot around the town in the off-season and we have to think further about a ride to Bozeman.

Gulfed in mountain ranges, dark is coming on. What were supposed to be cabins for rent clumped by a river look damp and boarded up. We start to laugh when we think how we left that morning from Salt Lake City, drove to the Tetons through the rime of Yellowstone and are now in a convenience store at a Big Sky road junction with maybe forty-five miles to Bozeman. In the store we buy three hotdogs turning on a heated tray. The only other customers in the store are two teenage sweethearts with nowhere to go, but they're familiar with the owner of the place telling us after we ask for mustard and how far is Bozeman, that she just moved here from Kentucky two weeks ago with her husband, a state trooper, but she had a job once as a hair dresser. If the new business gets off the ground she wants to open a beauty parlor. She was the spitting image of Southern benevolence. All of this on a high road to the sky, and maybe only in Montana.

~ Bob Arnold, from American Train Letters
(Coyote Books, 1995)

photos © susan arnold