We got to our cabin in the Yaak Valley just as the rain began. Running Bear, the owner of the cabin, was there to greet us. Running Bear (RB for short) is one of those people who knows the names of every animal and plant and their uses and habitats. A font of knowledge. One evening he showed E and I how to make a stove out of an empty can of Foster’s beer and some denatured spirit. He also showed us how, with two empty cans of paint and some more of that essential denatured spirit, you can make a portable heater to keep in the car. Perfect for those long Montana winters. He heats his workshop with these things during the coldest months. The cabin we rented had been hand-crafted by Amish builders and finished off by RB himself. Small, simple and perfectly built with a ladder on a pulley to a mezzanine level. Clambering up and down kept E busy. Mornings we were greeted by some of RB’s pet deer. E and I got to hand feed Sweetpea. There is something odd about feeding wild animals. RB, I think, feels a mixture of emotions about it. He reminded us that they were wild animals, and yet he also added that if he didn’t feed them, they would probably starve. Wolves have been reintroduced to the area and so the animals’ major predator is back. All this tampering with the balance of nature is not good. But now that we have started, there is no going back. And so, RB basically runs a tiny deer sanctuary.
We were all set with our maps and our bottles of water and bear spray only for the clouds to gather ominously and the first rain in ages to fall from the sky. We waited for a slight break in the weather and headed to the Kootenai swinging bridge which spans the two banks of the Kootenai river.
Just as we set off on our hike to the bridge, it started to spit. We decided not to turn back. By the time we got to the bridge, the rain was no longer light – it was now heavy. We were not wearing any waterproofs or jackets and decided that since we were already wet, we might as well continue. Crossing a swinging wooden bridge in the pouring rain while rapids swirled below was pretty wonderful and scary in that safe way, where you know it looks worse than it is. The noise was deafening. We walked along the bank enjoying the rain now as we were beyond the point of return in terms of how sodden we had become. Rain dripped from our noses and our shoes made that squishy sound. Then, thunder and lightning struck. When some of it cracked fairly close by we decided to turn back. I noticed walking back across the swinging bridge that the handrails were metal. You notice this stuff in a thunderstorm. The walk back was scary in a not very safe way. I kept picturing the headlines: “British family fried on Kootenai Bridge”.
The rain carried on the whole time we were in our cabin, but we did manage a few trips to the Yaak river which ran through the property and we spent a lot of time in a cafe in Troy, the nearest town. And then J and I had the idea that we would turn our dream of hiking the wilderness (which rain and thunder had scuppered) into a literary pilgrimage. Literary pilgrimage in Northwestern Montana? Yup. Two of our favourite living writers have connections here. Denis Johnson lives in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho just over the border from Montana, and Marilynne Robinson set the wonderful “Housekeeping” in a fictional town called Fingerbone which is actually Sandpoint, Idaho. So we set off for Bonner’s Ferry.
First stop was the bookshop in Bonner’s Ferry which had every book by Denis Johnson – and all of them signed. J bought a signed copy of “The Stars at Noon”, the one book by Johnson he doesn’t have. We got to talking to the woman in the bookshop and she told us about the Boundary Country Fair which takes place in Bonner’s Ferry. From her description of it, I thought it would be like the Fair in Ottawa where I grew up. You know the sort of thing: prize pumpkins and winning ponies with some arts and crafts and a few rides thrown in. I could not have been more wrong.
In the first exhibition hall we were greeted by a towering, smiling Republican, father of six, who charmingly explained to us why Obamacare is wrong. He was extremely intelligent and enjoyed a bit of sparky debate. The sort of man I could never agree with on anything, and yet, I couldn’t help but feel on a deep level, he was probably very decent and kind. Politics here is often complex, it seems. Then onto the next stall: the National Rifle Association, which was raffling off a long-barelled gun. The kind that has its own tripod. The guy manning that booth asked me if I had taken E to the Bonner’s Ferry shooting range yet. I had to admit I hadn’t. He said she was just the right age to start using a gun. I said, maybe next time. The entire exhibition hall was full of odd denominations of Christians with all kinds of messages, most of them claiming to be able to save me.
Right at the end of the hall were three middle-aged men in jeans and shirts. They looked like the sort of people you might want to sit and chew the fat with, the sort of people with some very good stories up their sleeves. Their faces alone spoke of some good times. It turned out they were the only Democrat representatives at the fair. One had been married in London at the Kensington and Chelsea registry office. He was keen to point out that was with the first wife. I didn’t ask how many more he had. Another spoke of his years on the Magic Bus. Jerry, the guy actually running for office was a car mechanic and a friend of Denis Johnson’s. I asked if they were ever lonely being Democrats in this uber-Republican state and one of them piped up, I’ve got Jerry to hold my hand. I took that to mean, yes, they were very lonely indeed. But they were hopeful of a win in the next election. I wish them well.
We wandered the fair in a slight state of disbelief. Families in nineteenth century clothing thronged the stalls admiring the llamas, pigs and goats. If you’ve ever seen the film “Stop the Pounding Heart”, you get the picture. The girls wear long dresses, often with slips or light crinolines. The men wear trousers and shirts. They live the word of God literally and generally don’t like the government very much. I wanted to take pictures of them, but felt awkward. I got a couple of not very good snaps as I was too shy to ask them if I could take their photographs properly. I am sure they wouldn’t have minded, but I felt uncomfortable.
Taxidermy was all over the place and for once you could touch most of it. E was pretty freaked by it. There is something really very weird about stroking the fur of a dead animal. Like the eyes in a portrait that seem to follow you across a room, the spirits within these dead souls feels as if they could be re-animated at any moment. The message at the fair was loud and clear: hunting was good, poaching was bad. We stroked the various pelts and marvelled at the size of the stuffed grizzly, whose paw was bigger than E’s head.
The Oath Keepers had a stall and, like all the other group members we met at the fair, they were friendly and happy to talk. The Oath Keepers are mainly made up of ex-servicemen and women or their families. They claim to be Guardians of the Republic. Like so many political groups here in the US, they have a strange overlap with the Left in that they supported Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing. They hate the federal government and therefore anyone who stands up to what they see as meddling from the State is a hero.
The last thing we stumbled upon was the spitting competition. From the sublime to the ridiculous.
I was feeling dazed and overwhelmed by the variety of beliefs and enthusiasms and ideas I had come into contact with in such a short period of time. I don’t think you could find anything even remotely like this in the UK. The Republican politician who had originally greeted us was very up on UK politics. He loved Prime Minister’s Questions. When I told him you could even watch it on TV if you wanted, he thought that was amazing. We need that here, he said.
As the afternoon came to an end, we headed out of Bonner’s Ferry towards Sandpoint, Marilynne Robinson’s birthplace and setting for the transcendent “Housekeeping”. We stopped at some motels looking for a bed for the night. None was to be had as it was the Sandpoint Music Festival. We called motels within a fifty-mile radius. Everything was booked. So we decided to do the five hour drive back to Missoula. We left Sandpoint just as the sun was setting. Driving out of town, we saw The Bridge from “Housekeeping” just as a train flew onto it from the tracks running along the lake. We may not have got a motel room, we had a long drive into the night ahead of us, but we had found the springboard to one of the greatest novels ever written. That was enough, certainly for one day.