"You don’t really know a place until you have seen the heartbreak behind it, and sometimes that heartbreak makes the picture a little less pretty. . . The confines of my small town, the heaviness of the stories of the people within it, was something I thought I could erase if I ran far enough away. " -- Elsie Wipplinger
The following is a blog post from Elsie Wipplinger, in response to Richard Hugo's poem, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg." Elsie is a student in Robert Stubblefield's Montana Writers Live! course.
“You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.”
-- Richard Hugo
I grew up in a town where over half of the store fronts that made up the main street drag were bars. I knew my way around the stools in those places before I could even say stool. Or bar, for that matter. When you hear the words “small town” and “Montana” paired together, families sitting on street benches with mountains and the famous ROMAN Theatre sign in the background, smiling ear to ear, is usually the image that surfaces. My “Small Town, Montana” picture was not the same as everyone else’s, and I didn’t really understand why. Then I read “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by Richard Hugo and my personal portrayal of the place I called home became a little bit clearer.
“You might come here Sunday on a whim/ Say your life broke down” rang especially true to the people I always waved to on Broadway as I drove by, them taking their fifth smoke break before it was even generously the afternoon. The people who always loved it in Red Lodge were the ones who came and didn’t stay very long, and I guess the ones who did stay wouldn’t necessarily say their life was running like a car fresh off the lot.
I feel like that is always how it works out. You don’t really know a place until you have seen the heartbreak behind it, and sometimes that heartbreak makes the picture a little less pretty. So why not just find a new town, a new picture, and try not to look too deeply into the windows in the buildings. Eighteen-year-old me was looking for that, too. The confines of my small town, the heaviness of the stories of the people within it, was something I thought I could erase if I ran far enough away. The funny thing about home though, is that it finds its way into the new places you go, so you never quite forget where you came from. Richard Hugo said “but towns/ of towering blondes, good jazz and booze/ the world will never let you have/ until the town you came from dies inside?” I can’t help but think that perhaps the town you came from can never die. Maybe that’s what he meant by that.
About the Author:
Elsie Wipplinger was raised on a quarter horse ranch in Red Lodge, Montana, with her parents and two older brothers. Now a junior at the University of Montana, she is pursuing a major in education. She one day hopes to move to Alaska and pursue her teaching career there.