Stand in the Place Where You Are

Your feet are going to be on the ground.

Your head is there to move you around,

so stand.


Missoula Then and Now

To me, this town is filled with ghosts: unpublished writers, slacker pool players, crystal jewelry purveyors, and long-dead mining engineers.  People I knew 30 years ago. I keep seeing them in crowds.  

The real people I see are young; the ones I knew are now be as old as I am. Back then, they were just beginning to write their first novels. Just learning how to stay out of trouble.  One was pushing the envelope on his motorcycle over and over, until the last ride. Another left Missoula but keeps coming back.

I lived in this house for only two years, but I learned to teach my own classes; I learned to slay any masters’ seminar in literature. (You try me with Hamlet or Paradise Lost.  Just try me.) I learned to do pre-internet research, to write, to think, and to stand up for myself here.  

Really, I learned to appreciate the land around me, because—no matter how tired you are after working night shift as the reference librarian, no matter how slanted you feel after playing pool at Charlie’s Bar, no matter how long you’ve been sitting cross-legged on the floor of your rental house, leafing through 3×5 cards and typing out your thesis—you always know where you are on the planet, because you know the mountains when you look up, the exact mountains in the exact direct you’re looking.

Missoula is where you stand in the place where you live.  The mountains in every direction show you that.

Think about Direction, Wonder Why You Haven’t Before

Here’s the funny story that will save this navel-gazing monologue: wherein Tracy is forced into small talk.

We drove into town two days in a row to see the River City Roots Festival, which Tracy learned would be happening in Missoula while we were camped nearby, and then he picked a campground where the gates wouldn’t lock us out if we came back late at night.

Here’s a random shot from the festival: the free bike valet. That’s Missoula for you right there.

Also only Missoula: dogs off leash, on the bike trails, on the beautiful new parks along the Clark Fork River, tied loosely to meters while their people go inside bookstores, bars, bike shops. Bike and dogs. Dogs and bikes.

We heard a few fun bands and a couple of great bands, and we ate empanadas and Pad Thai and drank local beer and smiled at strangers. Most of all, we kept to ourselves to avoid breathing the breath of the crowd,

I chatted up the 4th-year IT student in line for beer, and I introduced myself to the guy with very long dreads who looked so familiar (but wasn’t my old acquaintance). And I started a conversation with the young man skooched in next to me on the short brick wall Tracy and I had claimed for ourselves to the side of the band stage.

He so wanted to chat. “Is this the ‘relax’ period?”, Manuel asked in broken English. “Yep, this is between sets,” I replied, although he didn’t understand me. We both were sharing a positive vibe, but not the same language (literally). So when I reached my limit with a word I didn’t understand and pointed to Tracy as my Spanish interpreter, I sealed their two fates for 20 minutes.

Manuel’s face lit up, he was so happy to have someone to talk with in Spanish. I sat between them catching the odd English reference, while this guy talked Tracy’s ear off. And you know Tracy: he may hate talking with strangers, but he’s going to be polite, especially to someone by himself trying to communicate, trying so politely himself to make a connection.

They talked about this guy’s job (Forest Service), how dangerous it is, how he moves south in the winter to work in warmer states, how he prefers classic rock (yes, the Scorpions are German), where Tracy learned to speak Spanish, what kind of accents they both have (Manuel was born with a cleft palate that was fixed surgically as a child; I now have seen all of the inside his mouth). How, when we go to Mexico, we’ll probably be a lot safer than he would be.

If You Are Confused, Check with the Sun

I swear, karma reached out and grabbed me during this conversation. All the ghosts of Missoula whom I was so chatted with, the person I used to be and the person I am now: we gathered into an angry mob ready for Tracy and Manuel to shut the heck up so I could hear the Lil Smokies when they came on stage.

After several subtle attempts, I was thinking of standing up and saying in simple English, “The wife wants quiet.”

Manuel is clever though. Just as I was about to burst, he clinked cups, said farewells, and stalked off into the crowd. I really wish I’d asked him for a selfie. He’s not a ghost, and he’s not some character from the campground. He’s a regular dude, whom I accidentally conned Tracy into having a long conversation with.

He made me wonder why I’ve never wondered before. (I don’t know how that fits, but it’s still a great line from the song.)

Missoula. Stand.