(Excerpted from Chapter 19: Cruising Babylon: The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries)
East of the Divide, Montana 7-16-97
We hop off I-90 at Cardwell just as it begins to rain. We follow Highway 2 past the Lewis and Clark caverns, winding our way through steep treeless canyons that look like prime dinosaur habitat. At Three Forks the barren lunar landscape gives way to an oasis full of cottonwoods and willows. The town takes its name from the fact that three rivers – Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin – converge here to form the headwaters of the mighty Missouri River.
We take a frontage road through Headwaters State Park and pull off to spend the night beside the brand new river. Despite the voracious appetites of the local mosquitoes, the evening is splendid, capped off by a crazy thunder and lightning storm that rolls in over the high cliffs on the opposite bank. We decide to stay one more night. Rarely does lightning occur west of the divide. It is a good sign. It feels good to be in the open expanses of central Montana.
After coffee we set out for Bozeman – former cow poke town and home to Montana State University. During the past decade, old ranchers have cashed out their scenic ranches to unscrupulous sub-dividers who have pushed an uncontrolled development spree fed by retired Californians with large bank accounts. The same gentrification that occurred in Missoula happened here, but on a more severe level.
Stetson hats have given way to Izod golf ware. Actress Glenn Close owns the trendy Leaf and Bean coffee shop on Main Street. We enter, but are quickly repelled by high-brow pseudo-intellectualism. We stroll out laughing and wondering what “leaf” has to do with coffee. We buy two cups of Sumatra dark roast from a cart parked outside Buttrey’s Grocery in the mall instead. The woman behind the cart is friendly and talks of how screwed Bozeman is getting. We tell her Missoula sucks too. She wishes us luck in looking for a new paradise and says to let her know if we find it.
Bozeman proves useful as a vending opportunity. We cash in on the glitz, peddling unneeded goods at various well-paying pawn shops in town – CD’s, sleeping pads, whatever. We sell two hammocks to the major league asshole that runs Powderhorn Outfitters. We grab some groceries with our new found pesos and escape Little Switzerland via Highway 86 up into the Bridger Mountains to the north.
We pass through a lush valley filled with million dollar homes and enter the Gallatin National Forest. At the top of Battle Ridge Pass we pull into a free campground of same name. The book we bought at Barnes & Noble before we left Missoula – A Guide to Free Campgrounds by Don Wright – has already paid for itself. Our neighbors are few for being this close to Bozeman, mostly older folks with Montana plates showing the numbers of counties I do not recognize.
A cop drives through – just as one had done earlier at Toll Mountain – piquing my interest. I wonder if it has anything to do with my recent televised statements accusing Montana Governor Marc Racicot of involvement in the Canadian cross-border drug trade. After making the statement, the show received a call from a Guido-sounding guy who wanted to verify my name. Maybe my name was now on an APB for Montana cops, many of whom are also involved in the Golden Triangle (an area east of Great Falls) drug trade. In addition to the cops, I’ve been seeing an overabundance of white Montana Power Company vehicles.
A friend of mine who spent two years in jail for selling pot said the day he was busted at his Garnet Mountain home a fleet of white Montana Power pickups surrounded his cabin. I’ve been seeing these white pickups every day. I decide that the .22 rifle that my dad had custom-made for me when I was ten years old would be better placed nearer our bed with all 15 rounds loaded. I also begin to wonder if we aren’t better off leaving Montana sooner rather than later.
Come morning I am less worried, but still vigilant. We have spent four days here, hiking some gorgeous alpine meadows with stunning views of the Bridgers. We decide to head north towards another island range – the Little Belts. After Sunday dinner at a cafe in White Sulfur Springs, we fill our water jugs and head north on Hwy. 89 into the Lewis and Clark National Forest. We veer west onto a gravel road. Six miles later we arrive at Moose Creek Campground. We pull into a site on the clear-running creek. The only company is a gregarious marmot up in the rocks behind us who appears at regular intervals chirping as if to say “hello”, and a raven that seems older than the mountains around us and serves as sentry – keeping an eye out for deranged human arrivals.
The night is quiet. By morning I have put my faith in the raven and settle into a Zen campground understanding. For all the hype about pristine Montana, these campgrounds have all seen their share of idiots. Most of our first day at a campground is spent cleaning up trash. The more I do it, the more I kind of enjoy it. Most of the trash we find – and the small amount of trash we generate – can be burned in the fire after we make the morning coffee. Yes, the smoke is acrid and toxic for a moment, but it is better that we take responsibility for it now than to pawn it off on some inner city landfill or incinerator. As I toss a creamer packet swiped from a grocery store deli – along with ketchup, mustard, mayo, chopped onions, sugar, barbecue sauce and honey – into the fire, I imagine that if the Missoula middle-class eco-crowd were to witness the burning of such things, they would either faint or write a grant.
Being a Gemini I hold efficiency in high regard, so I get a kick out of burning up the little bits of wood, left over by the bonfire maniac who has come before us, rather than going to gather more. These types are frightened of the dark and react to the sudden lack of city lights to comfort them by making a fire so large as to consume a whole area of downed timber, robbing the next camper of having a fire without a long walk to get wood. When I cook – and I do most of the cooking over fire – I make a blaze just big enough to get the job done. It’s amazing how little wood one actually needs for cooking, especially if one adds the charcoal from previous fires – left blackened but not burned – right at the end.
We wash our first “load” of campground clothes this morning. It is a real joy, a Buddhist meditation. We soak the clothes thoroughly in the creek, then set them in a pile atop a towel well away from shore. We soap each piece up, scrub them, then use a bowl to scoop water from the creek, pouring it over the clothes to rinse them, in this way avoiding getting any soap in the river.
Bathing is done in similar fashion. Substitute body for clothes and we are able to get squeaky clean. It’s simple and it’s free. No power bill for cooking, no lukewarm $5 KOA 3-minute shower – just the power of fire, a mountain stream and the sun to warm and dry you.
As the sun begins to set on our fourth night here, I hear a vehicle drive by the campground entrance. It stops and backs up to turn in. An old white Plymouth Horizon comes into view – coolers strapped to the roof, bungee cords holding down the bulging rear hatch, frame riding low on well-worn tires. The plates read “North Carolina”. This should be interesting. The unit comes to a full stop right in front of us. Out of the rig crammed to the ceiling with cans of mission food and other miscellaneous junk, pop a hillbilly-looking couple, three barefooted kids, and a cat. We are soon told that this cat is the lucky one out of six that had started the trip.
Jimmy isn’t shy. He immediately launches into a series of directional questions regarding his whereabouts, then wonders aloud if I have a joint. He offers an Old Milwaukee, smelling like the one he now cracks isn’t his first of the afternoon. He says he had been forced by a judge to leave his North Carolina county of many years after their dog was found hung on its own chain in the backyard of their trailer house. A neighbor with a grudge called the cops and when Jimmy got home from an emergency visit to a doctor in Charlotte that night, they were waiting for him and arrested him for animal cruelty. In court the judge took one look at Jimmy’s pony tail and gave him thirty days to either leave the county or go to jail.
With $248 to their name, the family lit out of the trailer park hell in their two-door Horizon and never looked back. It was just the excuse Jimmy needed to finally live his dream of seeing America. We bought a $50 Golden Eagle Pass – good at all National Parks. Jimmy invested his $50 in a zoo pass good at every zoo in the US. So far they’ve visited thirty-six zoos. The barefoot kid who answers to Bubba had nearly been eaten by a Siberian tiger at the Cincinnati Zoo after he stuck his hand in its cage.
This is a hardy bunch. Making gas money hasn’t been a problem. Jimmy stoops to day work when all else fails, but generally has found rest areas quite a lucrative place for soliciting “donations”. The three children are as convincing as a veteran circus act when it comes to looking downtrodden and this look has been quite effective at highway waysides. Missions have also been well utilized as a place to sleep, get a meal or two, and load the Horizon with a case or two of extra food.
Jimmy fancies writing a book when he gets home on how he has made it through twenty-four states and counting on $248. He says a publisher in Raleigh has expressed interest and is offering a whopping 2% royalty. But Jimmy is living in the present – like any good Buddhist – and convinces his wife that he needs to be driven to the town of Neihart to procure another six-pack of Old Milwaukee. They depart. Just after dark, I see their headlights returning. The five of them set about putting up their tent, while I stoke a campfire. We talk late into the night. Just when we are ready to rack it, Jimmy and his wife Alice recite two of the most beautiful poems I have heard. She recites one from Rimbaud about perseverance and hardship. He recites a one he’s written to describe his deep love for Alice.
Both poems move me to tears. They are an omen, screaming at me to keep going on into the headwind, to forget the complacency and ease we have left behind in familiar Missoula – to face the hardship, challenge, reward and happiness of the new and the unknown. If this ruffian bunch of hillbillies can make it from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to the California coast, we can go anywhere on this uncertain road of life.
Morning comes. We give each of the kids a necklace that Jill made for good luck. Jimmy busts out extra cans of mission-provided re-fried beans and jars of peanut butter. We accept his offering and bid farewell to these inspiring troubadours. We steer north for Great Falls, hoping to unload some more merchandise.
Great Falls is the second largest city in Montana (pop. 55,097) and a major shit hole. There is a massive air force base (Malmstrom), a hulking oil refinery and a crumbling downtown full of poor Blackfeet Indians and dealers of gold bullion who must play a part in the Golden Triangle drug trade. At the corner of Central Avenue, the white-owned M&H gas station stands ready to sell its next bottle of Thunderbird to another reservation refugee. Poor whites sit on the porch of a run-down 4-plex across the street on 7th Avenue. Poor blacks fill the barracks at Malmstrom, ready to die when the Great White Father says it’s time. Locals worship this base, though its long presence has done nothing to help the economy of this ailing city.
We find a safe quiet parking spot. After morning coffee we set out peddling. I sell a leather jacket and a baseball glove at a pawn shop. We stop at The Bead Cafe and unload over $100 worth of Jill’s handmade beads. We sell two hammocks to Bighorn Outfitters, then two more to Planet Earth. We left Clinton with $125 in cash. Now, two relaxing weeks later, we have nearly $500. We talk the manager of Hardees into allowing us to park in his lot for the night. It is hot and his lot has the biggest shade trees around – essential for the dogs.
This evening we walk down to M&H for a giant soda and some chocolate. We are accosted by a steady stream of the Great Falls underclass seeking spare change and smokes. After two weeks of isolation and camping in the sticks, we don’t mind the human interaction and convenience that urban life affords. The public library is just opposite our parking spot. There are two places in America that remain public and thus free to all: libraries and public lands. As nomads we are the scourge of all that is privately held, so we take full advantage of both.
Morning arrives. We decide to forego the more efficient route shown on the map and to head back west for one last look at one of our favorite Montana haunts – the Rocky Mountain Front. I read in the Great Falls Tribune that oil and gas development is now looming for the only place in the world where grizzly bears roam the Great Plains at the foot of the Rockies, rising fitfully from coulees and buttes towards the Continental Divide. I once saw a wolverine here. I want to warn him now of impending doom.
We veer right off Hwy 200 onto MT 21, a narrow gray ribbon cutting through foothill ranches before it reaches Augusta, the most picturesque of the Front Range towns, lying in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas. We pause briefly to take the pulse of this town, where cowboy motifs mingle with high priced art galleries. A more recent addition is an espresso bar. They are coming.
We head south on MT 435. As the road turns to gravel Bean Lake comes into view. It’s a pretty little pothole loaded with trout. Except for the view of the massive peaks to the west, this could just as easily be in North Dakota. Like us, a handful of campers have come here to assert our identity as “the public”, which is good for a 14-day free stay. Tackle-less, we leave the fishing to the old-timers and drive a few miles further to the Dearborn River Trailhead.
We set out across the raging river and hike eight miles until we reach the entrance to the Scapegoat Wilderness Area. On our way back we shed our clothes and plunge into the icy cold Dearborn River, then lay nude in the hot sun on a sandbar. As we lay mesmerized by the surrounding cliffs, I think that if shit ever really hits the fan, this is where I want to be.
Back at the trail head we meet a couple driving a VW van on a circuitous route from San Francisco to Boston, where they will settle. They offer us a bottle of huckleberry beer – procured from a Montana tourist shop we assume. I’ve never had one. It is not nearly as tasty as the huckleberry wine we made while living in our cabin at Swan Lake. Still, the brew has a way of shifting the conversation quickly to politics. They agree that the US government is run by an oligarchy, but when I propose armed revolution as the solution to such nonsense, they quickly remember how hungry they are and rush off for a 14 oz. Montana steak in Great Falls. The deer in the headlights look is familiar. They have revealed to me that they are born of money and so their liberalism has its limits. God forbid the spare-changers at M&H get dibs on that 14 oz T-bone.
We return to Bean Lake and bed down for three nights. Days are filled with some of the best bird-watching we’ve experienced. I am beginning to enjoy this pastime – a very Zen practice that requires paying attention and moving at the pace of a turtle. We see gold finches, cedar waxwings, Western tanagers and many types of waterfowl. We also observe beaver and muskrat. When the heat becomes unbearable, we walk to the end of the solitary dock and plunge into the cold water.
We pass through Augusta on the way out. Having fallen in love with this area again, I am tempted to check on real estate prices. It is a disappointing search. Shacks in town start at $60,000, almost as pricey as Missoula. We return to the van and discover we have a flat, so I jack Tubs II up high, remove the wheel and roll it a couple blocks to the Conoco station which is – fortunately for our pocketbook – run by the real estate agent I’d just talked to. Wanting to keep open the possibility of future transactions, he charges me only $5.00. He even takes it back down the street and puts it on with the air wrench.
Though the road to Bean Lake is covered with sharp gravel, I take the flat to be more of a sign that this is not the place for us to be looking for land. It is the last Montana door slamming shut. I am now sure that we are destined to leave this beautiful, but backwards state. A night listening to cows bellow and shit in Willow Creek Reservoir on the other side of Augusta reaffirms my vision.
In the morning we head southeast towards Helena. Highway 287 drops us onto I-15 and two miles later, we hop off at the Wolf Creek exit. It is Sunday. We ponder breakfast at a cafe, but the price they are charging for gas tells us it’s a tourist trap that specializes in reeling in out-of-state anglers who flock here to fish the Missouri River. We opt for two packs of smokes and head downriver to Spite Hill fishing access, where an elderly Great Falls couple is just pulling out of the prime camp site on the riverbank. Perfect!
Rubber rafts filled with tourists float by at regular intervals, interspersed with the occasional white pelican paddling its feet and bobbing its head to and fro’ in search of lazy fish. On the opposite bank awe-inspiring cliffs raise high to meet the sky, a deer feeds on service berries and a golden eagle (visible only through binoculars) supervises the theater from the highest point on the cliff. I wonder if those who live the best lives come back as eagles. Evening brings a fierce thunderstorm, like the one we experienced the last time we camped on this mighty river at Three Forks. There are high winds and heavy rain pelts the van. I drive to the higher ground of the parking lot at midnight, just in case.
We drive into Helena. Nothing here has changed. It is the same dry hole as it’s always been when it comes to peddling our wares. We take one last stroll down the walking mall on Last Chance Gulch. Suddenly, someone hollers my name. It is Paul Shively, a fellow Missoula refugee who has moved across the Divide. We met several years ago when I was publishing The Missoula Paper and he was recruiting Peace Corps volunteers on the UM campus. The State Department would have done back flips had it known that the party animal Shively was using its funds to take out regular $10 an issue ads in my radical left journal.
Paul invites us to stay the night at his place. We accept, looking forward to familiar conversation and our first actual shower in three weeks. We party the night away. In the morning he offers his laundry facilities and the run of the house before leaving early for his new job as lobbyist for a Helena environmental group. It’s the kind of guy Paul is, the kind of place Missoula had once been. We had both seen it turn on a dime. We had both moved on. Paul shares my desire to leave the US altogether. I talk of New Zealand, he of Sierra Leone – where he worked in the Peace Corps. He has a propensity for black women and shares our darkening view of America. We had needed to talk.
We set sail to the east, past the ASARCO lead smelter in poverty-stricken East Helena, where leukemia rates in children are through the roof – their playgrounds transformed into tailing heaps for this New York-based Rockefeller-controlled multinational. A few months ago I had written a letter to the editor in the Missoulian, supporting the Tupac Amaru guerrillas in Peru and accusing ASARCO subsidiary Southern Peru Copper of running cocaine into this East Helena smelter via lead shipments. This latter accusation was edited out, but did make it into The Independent – an only slightly less despicable corporate rag based in Missoula, which was launched shortly after my paper in what looked like an attempt to starve us of ad money and subscriptions. If this was their intent, it worked, leaving Missoula with two mouthpieces of empire – one claiming to be progressive.
Hwy 12 winds its way up into the Big Belt Mountains, where I once nearly died caving and another time nearly died on a muddy mountain pass. This time our odds seem better. The tree line gives way to alpine sage scrub and wildflowers. It never really gets warm here. A sign appears advertising “Grassy Mountain Ranchettes: 20 Acres – $29,900”. A great deal for those wanting to live in a place where nothing grows and where a well-drilling expedition leads quickly to the poor house. Still, I am sure that even these parcels on this wind-driven pass will be quickly sold to naive Californians with deep pockets.
I let off the gas and we coast down into the Shields River Valley. After a short jaunt south on Hwy 89, we turn east on MT 294. It’s one of those roads that shows up gray on the map and so is nearly without traffic but of perfectly good surface. Gray roads are our friends. We arrive at a dot on the map known as Martinsdale. There is a restaurant, an auto repair shop and two bars. We coast through town and hit a rough dirt road leading to Martinsdale Reservoir. Canadian geese line its reedy banks, taking in a stray pelican and the occasional flock of mallards. Loons and grebes sail about the rough wind-driven water conducting serious courtship rituals. The sky darkens and fills with low black clouds. Rain is imminent.
We pull into the grass near where someone has crafted a fire pit out of rocks. We take out the pork roast we bought in Helena. I get a driftwood fire going while Jill seasons the roast and fills the cast iron skillet with potatoes and carrots. Just as I get a good fire going, it starts pissing rain. Jill – always the family inventor – devises a ring of rocks inside of which we place the pan. We cover the ring with a large slab rock to keep the fire dry and the meat tender. Air is allowed in via two portals parallel to the wind direction. We hop in the dry van, gloating a bit at our improvisation. The rain does not subside, but within an hour we are eating a gourmet meal in comfort.
After coffee this morning we head east past Two Dot to Harlowton. My friend Gene Bernofsky – postal clerk/independent film maker who focuses on exposing mining companies and is one of the only real lefties in Missoula – had talked of retiring here. I am eager to discover its allure. A brief stop at a real estate office confirms that there are cheap houses here in the $25-30,000 range.
But the town feels super redneck and not in the good sense of that word. There are good rednecks, they just don’t live in Harlowton. There is talk of a mine. When we fill our water jugs at a convenience store on the Musselshell River, which flows through town. I am appalled at the taste of it. Tonight I have a dream that I am visiting Gene’s new ranch near Harlowton when an angry bull rams him through a wooden fence. Gene should keep his communist ass in Missoula.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Stickin’ it to the Matrix, The Federal Reserve Cartel & Illuminati Agenda 21: The Luciferian Plan to Destroy Creation. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com