Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Night at the Thrifty Western: Missoula 1988

I'm trying to remember how we did this, Fru and I. How we moved out to Montana from Illinois. In January of 1988 I drove from Florida to live with Fru in Champaign. But by February I went to New York City, stayed there with Jimmy till late March, maybe April. Then I came back to Illinois, to Champaign where I worked at a nursery just east of Urbana, then spent the summer working concrete construction. I applied for grad school at the University of Montana--was accepted--and so, by September, Fru and I moved out to Missoula. It's strange to me now to think I could do all that roving around in one year, but back then it was the norm for me. Time passed more slowly, months of experience were often like years.
But I know we had two vehicles. Fru owned a nice, earth-brown Honda Civic. I had owned a powder blue Ford Maverick, but had traded a buddy (Kurt) that car for a beat-up red Custom Deluxe Chevy pickup truck. (If you're going to live in Montana, you gotta have a truck.) So I think Fru and I drove out to Missoula in her car, looked for a rental to live in, then left the car, flew back and loaded my truck up--including her cat M.R.--and drove back out to Montana. Or maybe we drove out and back, then did the exchange with a flight. I'll have to ask her.
Missoula was a town I'd first noticed in 1983 while on the way to Alaska with Brock and Matt. It was a pretty town and it was in Montana and I defy anyone to drive through Montana and not fall in love with the place. So, Missoula was cool, pastoral yet still a little rough--real and non-gentrified--and I filed that away in my brain like I do with many interesting little places I happen to fall in and out of in my life. I came through Missoula again in 1987, after leaving Seattle, this time noting that the university was there . . . I loved the West, spent a happy chunk of my childhood in Vancouver, Washington so had a feel, a connection to it, to the Pacific Northwest, and always felt that was where I'd end up if I ever settled down. Thusly, in 1988, after being accepted to the MFA writing program at Montana, I asked Fru if she'd like to go with me--the two of us--and live together among the mountains and bears and pickups.
She said yes.
But Fru was smart enough to also apply at the university and get accepted and was smart enough not to try and be a writer but rather join their accounting program. (She worked at a bank in Champaign, had attended Western Illinois but never finished her degree.) So, we'd both be students in Missoula, and back then their school didn't start till mid September. And come late August, off we went on a reconnaissance mission to Missoula.
It was a wonderful drive. It was wonderful to have a woman like Fru to share it with, a new adventure both physically and emotionally for both of us. I think I drove the northern route, up through Minnesota and into North Dakota and into Montana, through dry dusty Glendive and Miles City (where we stayed the night and a horse sale was going on), through rimrocked and natural-gas-burning-stacked Billings, into the Rockies and old Butte and then the run to Missoula. I recall Fru and I standing downtown, smelling the strong scent of pine, looking at the streets and time-forgotten buildings, the Clark-Fork River, the distant mountains and treed hills, the bald hills of Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo, happy and excited, maybe a little stink from the paper mills too. We spent our time getting to know the city, the university, the area. I wanted to live outside of town, in a cabin if we could, maybe down a bit in the Bitterroot. I wanted to write and drink morning coffee among trees and mountains, drink beer in cowboy/rancher bars, make love with Fru in a new western town that was ours alone . . . stuff like that. We didn't have a ton of money, so we didn't stay in downtown Missoula but got a room south of it, on Brooks Street near a mall. It was a clean little motel called the Thrifty Western Inn.
So we had our room, were in our new state, new city (essentially for the first time) with no jobs, no house or apartment, no true knowledge of the community, no real idea of what comes next except that we'd be attending the University of Montana in less than a month. We were excited. Fru and I had known each other for a little less than year, I'd been living with her in Illinois for months. And that night, in the cubical of a motel room, after Fru had fallen asleep, I felt terrible.
I could not sleep and it was dark and the uncertainties of it all crept into my brain and blood and heart and I felt a slow molasses-like anxiety, a burrowing insect of dread, take over me. It's like when you wake up at three in the morning and all your petty fears become the pinpoint of your concerns, or like on a winter Sunday evening and you turn on the overhead light and you just feel rotten for no real reason--that's how I felt. I felt bad enough that I drew a hot bath in the motel room tub and sat in it, trying to figure out why I was worried, why this unease hit me so hard at that moment at the Thrifty Western Inn in Missoula, Montana. I had moved around plenty, been to places with no work and only a few friends or no friends, so why now and why there?
And, I think, it was because I had someone with me. Someone I felt responsible for, responsible to. This was not Fru's life and I wondered what I was getting her into: would Missoula be just a small stop and then I'd ask her to move on again? Would our relationship fall apart and I caused her to leave job and family and friends for nothing? Fru's mother was sick--cancer--and she had said to me to take care of her daughter and now I did not think I was doing that. Could I do that? Was this whole thing a huge mistake, just another run at another dream of mine that would never pan out? . . . I sat naked in the tub and could not answer any of that, and that unknown future--my culpability in the unknowing--was where the dread emanated from. Poor Fru. Poor me. It was the middle of the night and I'd lost my nerve.

The next day the sun was up. The world smelled of pine. The mountains were clean and sharp and the city of Missoula went about its daily business like all the other cities in the world. And Fru and I went about the restructuring of our lives. After a day or so more, we found a cabin for rent in the Bitterroot just outside of Stevensville, uphill on a dirt road near St. Mary's Peak. It was brand new with a loft and fireplace and big blonde wood logs, on a half acre with neighbors barely visible through the scattered brush and jackpines. Beautiful. We moved there in September. Started school. Took many naps on the couch and played cribbage in bed when the cold snows came. Yes, it was impractical but it was an enjoyable impracticality. Still, before the winter was done, in 1989, we moved to a little dollhouse of a cottage in Missoula, on Rollins Street. But it all worked out.
It's still working out. 

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