Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep...

Today began and ended with snow. And between was a jumble of mishaps, all which seemed to lead to good things--making me think, get out, break from the cozy shell of this solitary writer's existence.

I awoke befuddled, sure that I'd heard something. When I turned my head on the pillow and looked down from my sleeping loft I could see the outline of a tall, thin person through the curtain at my door. After stumbling down the steps, yanking a sweatshirt over my head and glancing at the oven clock (which read a disgustingly late 10:30 a.m.), I opened the door. Outside was another resident, a writer named Vicki who is by far the most accomplished (read published) of the four of us here at MAR. I glanced down at my extra-large, drawstring pajama pants, which are unfortunately decorated with tiny blue snowboarders. So, I covered my mouth, prayed she couldn't smell my morning breath.

The propane guy (George, who I'd met the first day I was here) needed to get to the tanks behind the Refuge buildings, and we all were supposed to move our cars. Apparently, he'd tried my phone... which I possibly could've avoided answering in my comatose state, or George--though seemingly well-meaning--is really just full of crap. I looked at Vicki, who was bright-eyed and decked out in a lemon-yellow Northface jacket, through the downpour of snow, and tried not to grimace. Unfortunately, I think my response to the moving-of-the-car suggestion was, "You're freaking kidding me."

Obviously, I wasn't my best this morning. And Vicki graciously moved the car for me, after smiling a little out of the side of her mouth and commenting that I looked tired, and had I "just woken up?" When Vicki was out moving my car I started feeling guilty, and so I shrugged half-heartedly into a bra and put on my battered old Marmot jacket, stuffed my feet halfway into my hiking shoes and headed into the storm. Her boyfriend, a white-haired visual artist named Richard, was waiting for her in the alley between the brick Refuge buildings. "Work late last night?" He asked. I hadn't--I'd been up until 2 a.m., but not writing: I'd been looking up Yellowstone Park information and messing around on the Internet, but I sure as heck wasn't going to admit it. "Yes," I answered smoothly, ever the arteest in my ridiculous slippers and cotton candy blue toboggan, "Sometimes I do that."

Though I needed to get to work, writing-wise, one glimpse of the snow-covered small town and steep forests of down-filled evergreen was enough to get me moving. I dressed, loaded my camera, wallet, and waterbottle in a backpack, haphazardly checked the Internet for road conditions nearby, and took off for Butte, a town about thirty minutes away through the mountain passes, going south.

The drive was incredible, and there was rarely another car on the road... mostly truckers. Up toward the continental divide, where the air gets thinner and the highway tops out at over 6,500 feet, it was foggy and gusty, the snow blowing in sheets across the road. As I made my dilatory way down towards Butte I kept wishing that I could pull the car to the side of the road despite the danger, and take photographs in every direction. The scene was as lovely as a Currier and Ives painting: sheer mountainsides of evergreen forest covered in blinding white, and here and there a burst of gold aspens, sun-bright through the falling snow. But the rocks here seem to split out of the ground, impatient and cumbersome, which gives the scene an edge that the old, classic paintings lack. It's really quite stunning.

In Butte, I walked around town despite the cold and the snow, and wandered my way through the historic district. Old, turn of the century buildings--theatres, churches, and I'd say a former bawdy house or two--line the streets; on the edges, Victorian mansions built by copper barons for their often-proxied wives remain stately and well-maintained.

I bought more groceries at the Albertson's before heading out of town--I'm determined to make a vat of chili at some point--but was commandeered, just like last time, by a group of Montanans who were intent, I think, on making me feel welcome while enjoying the quirkiness of my Southern accent. The lady at the checkout counter treated me like an old friend, offering her opinions on restaurants, sights and tourist traps around town; in the back of the line, two weathered cowboys--in sure enough Stetsons, Carhartts and belt buckles the size of my head--gave me their personal take on the weather forecast. "Yep, it's early to snow, but it ain't strange."

Earlier today, before the venture into Butte, I'd played phone tag with my literary agent for the third time in two days. We'd planned on talking yesterday, but missed each other, and then again today, but that conversation got nixed when, during the snowstorm, the power went out to the entire town of Basin. So on my way back up Hwy 15, headed home, I considered the missed calls and wondered just what in the world we'd talk about, should we ever--with the time difference and capricious phone service in the Rockies--catch up with each other again. We're not having much luck with publishers for my novel, and so the process of it all, while it seems to be old hat to my agent, is ulcer-inducing for me. That being said, I'm just hanging in there, trying to swallow my pride and kick myself into gear on the next creative dirt track. We'll see what happens.

While I was pondering the whole big, scary deal--did I pen a lemon or not?--I was suddenly forced to think of nothing, take in nothing but the wide open white ahead, a view of valley ranchland covered in snow, miles of highway disappearing into silver-grey fog, black cattle and horses in the midst of it all, munching on grass and hay through the snow cover. It was incredible, like something out of a dream, and while I know the locals are simply annoyed by an early snowfall like this, to me it's a gift. A gift, and maybe even a benediction of pure, blanketing white over my over-loaded brain. Just look at what the world can do.

As I entered Basin, bumped my way back down the dirt alley that runs behind the main street through town, I bypassed a group of elementary school-age kids playing in the snow. They had dogs with them: all mutts, all big. They ambled over as I unloaded my groceries, and when I bent down and introduced myself tails started to wag. I was offered more than one muddy paw in greeting, and all became definitely right with the world.
I took a few photos of the drive, and the town of Butte, and I've included them here. Enjoy, and thanks for reading my rambling.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Some photos...

Basin, MT & Deerlodge National Forest

Here are some photos from around the Refuge. It's a tiny town of only about 250 people. Today I hiked in the Deerlodge National Forest with another resident; the forest abuts the town, and is full of old mine shaft openings and incredible views of rockslides, rivers and trees--mostly gold with Autumn. It's cold and cloudy, but the views are gorgeous.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Bring it on, Big Sky!

Well, I made it to the tiny, former gold mining town of Basin, Montana, for my Writer's Residency at the Montana Artists' Refuge. I'm here for an entire month, which means that I've got to accomplish big things in Big Sky Country.

The adventure began last night in Greenville, S.C., when at the last minute my Dad suggested I check my flight plan. Suddenly, Delta had me flying all the way to La Guardia in NY, and not arriving in Bozeman until 9 p.m.--which would've had me driving across the desolate West in the pitch. Needless to say, Dad the Hero jumped in, Stuart (the other hero) drove me to Charlotte at 4 a.m., and I caught a direct flight to Salt Lake. In Salt Lake I arrived with twenty minutes to spare between flights, and so I high-tailed it through the airport in my hiking shoes, leaving little children and groups of traveling football fans in my wake. When I got to my gate it had been switched to another, and so I ran (large backpack atop my small back) to the new gate, where I discovered that it had been changed again. I hoofed it up the escalator to another gate, past a group of men at a bar who were really getting a kick out of me by this point, and made it with a minute to spare. I was so exhausted on the flight to Bozeman that I slept through the complimentary beverage... doggone it.

Then, I got my wheels: Hertz decided that I'd surely have a sense of humor, and so they gave me a purple PT Cruiser. I'll spend the next month driving through the Rockies passing tough-guy trucks and horse trailers, looking like Dick Tracy on estrogen. But hey, it works.

Southwestern Montana is aflame with the high gold of Autumn, and yellow and orange trees cover the mountainsides in patches, sometimes interspersing with evergreens. There are rocks everywhere--and "beware of rockslides" signs at every milepost--and they stick up out of the ground like the tombstones of giants, cast haphazardly down hillsides and across fields. The evergreens grow up and out of these rocks defiantly, and I like that.

Basin is just off Highway 15, and my home for the next month is a high-ceilinged room in an old brick building once used somehow in the mining biz. I unloaded my groceries and tried to make it mine the first hour I was here. Now my shampoo's in the shower, my Clemson hat is hanging on a nail in the loft (despite our recent disaster at GA Tech), my travel candle is lit, and my photos are taped up on the wall behind my makeshift desk: Cal and John David on the night of their engagement, puppy-aged Scout and me on Black Balsalm, Mom and Dad all gussied up at Cal's wedding, Scout (again) in black and white, and Stuart and me on the deck of the Gulf Stream Restaurant at sunset.

Now, all I have to do is open myself up to this gift of time and place. To fight off longing for my husband and the pull of my own mercurial mind, and to write. To create. To decide that this is it--the writing life in the here and now.

Wish me luck!