MTPR

Reflections On The Beauty, Mysticism And Horror Of Life In The American West

Oct 19, 2016

"My close friend from high school died recently as the result of a car crash from three years ago. He had been driving to Missoula," writes Erik Kappelman, a student at the University of Montana.

"A short time ago I drove that same road with my pregnant wife and four-year-old daughter. We went to our family's ranch outside of Big Timber; the place is falling apart after my parent’s divorce, after years of disability and alcohol. I think to myself: when that homestead collapses after one hundred years, it will finally be over.

My daughter had never been to the ranch before this.  Nor had she met my father’s old friends, whose house had been strangely built up around a trailer, although you couldn't tell. A pond flows into a wall of cattails. There is a muddy blue paddle boat.  When I was a kid, we used to swim in that pond, our toes sinking into deep cold muck on the bottom.

It was cold the day we visited. My daughter held my hand and asked if we could get in the boat. I said no. I know one day we will come back and paddle the boat and swim in the pond. We will ride to the ranch, smell the sage, and look out at whatever is left.

I hope the memories of my friend don’t fade--nights on dirt roads, warm beer in dented cans, before children, before responsibility, before anyone our age drank too much.

I see him some nights in headlights and sirens on the highway. I see him on dirt roads. And sometimes, I see him in the mirror."

Kappelman pairs his reflection with Richard Hugo's “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” a poem that traces how the past can cast shadows on our future:

You might come here Sunday on a whim.   
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss   
you had was years ago. 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.   
Only churches are kept up. The jail   
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner   
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now   
is rage. Hatred of the various grays   
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,   
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls   
who leave each year for Butte. One good   
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.   
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,   
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat   
or two stacks high above the town,   
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse   
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?   
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium   
and scorn sufficient to support a town,   
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze   
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty   
when the jail was built, still laughs   
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,   
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.   
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.   
The car that brought you here still runs.   
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver   
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 4/6/16 and 10/19/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)