Roaming in the Groaning by Laura A. Munson
My friend gave me a trout that she caught with her husband, ice fishing.
I asked her to tell me about ice fishing. I was new to Montana. I was bullied by other people’s peak experiences. By their permission to do things like ice fishing. I knew about art museums. Liberal Arts education. And traveling.
She said they go over to Browning where the Indian reservation is, on a lake where the wind blows so hard that when they stand up from the buckets they have been sitting on, the buckets blow away. She said that when there has been a fast freeze and lots of wind, the ice is clear and you can look through and see the reeds and fish below. She said she likes to bring her ice skates and hold her arms out and let the wind push her from behind, across the lake. She said she likes ice fishing because you can go any time of the day. Last night, they couldn’t go to sleep, so they packed up and went out on a nearby lake with their auger, poles, bait, buckets, and a few lanterns. They drilled their holes, sat on their buckets holding their poles, surrounded by lanterns on the frozen lake. They caught two fish. They gave one to me. She said she and her husband like to catch trout in the summer and then pick huckleberries and stuff them inside, wrap them in foil and cook them over their campfire.
“I’ll eat mine tonight with butter and lemon,” I confessed. (Unlike most respectable Montanans, I do not have huckleberries fresh, canned, or even stored in my freezer, because for me, the invitation to go huckleberry picking in the summer conjures up the image of a resounding dinner bell and the phrase Come and get it! In other words, I am afraid of coming face to face with a very hungry, 300 pound, uris horibiles.)
Then I proceeded to tell her that the mere act of getting out of bed to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night is hard enough for me, much less trekking out into the cold with a fishing pole and an auger.
She smiled at me. She’s heard of people like me. Her mother warned her against people like me. Still, she gave me a trout.
I know. I know. Too bad for me. Trust me when I tell you that from the minute I laid eyes on this magnificent corner of Montana, I wanted to be the kind of woman who considers herself open to the wild-wonders-that-be. When my friend talked, for instance, I saw the lantern light flickering in her eyes. I saw the wind still at her back. I felt the tug on her pole. The stillness of the night and just her husband and this fish.
But I was not that person. I am still not that person.
I can see it in my child– the wonder of her. The tiny hands arranging colored pencils in a row and telling them a story about bees and skunks. I see it in art. The wonder—the risk– the abandon, played out in dances and canvases, words, songs. I see it in the majestic cathedrals of Europe—the catacombs—the flying buttresses—the stained glass. And true, when I have the courage, I feel it sitting on a rock by a river. I feel it on a sunny day, floating in salty waters just offshore. I feel it walking the dog in the meadow with patches of rain mottled with patches of sun. Looking for full-arch rainbows. Sleeping by the ocean. And still it’s hard for me to get myself out there, even to those quiet places. Sometimes all I have the courage for in Montana, is my own warm bed.
There is a sound here in the Northwest that I hadn’t heard before. It is reminiscent of a bird sound. Or a train whistle. But it is neither. It is the whoop. People whoop. There is pressure here to whoop. To skate the second the lakes freeze, to sleep in your car in the ski mountain parking lot to be sure you get the first run on a powder day, to land the biggest lunker, to bag the biggest buck, to kayak the most rapid rapids, to float the mightiest rivers, to sleep with bears and wolverines and mountain lions and lynx and to call them all Friend. I’d rather be eaten by a grizzly than die in a car accident on the freeway, so sayeth the soothsayers at the local bar, apre-whoop.
Another friend—a long-time Montanan– gave me an Atlas for a Christmas present one year because he asked me what I wanted and I told him– an Atlas. “I like to travel. I can’t imagine I’ll live here for very long.” He’s that kind of friend—gives me what I want, even when he doesn’t understand.
I held its heft in my lap and looked at him churlishly: “If you could go anywhere, where would you go?” I said.
He looked unimpressed. He said he wasn’t sure that staying right here in Montana was any different in the long run than traveling every page of those pink and green pastel countries and squiggly rivers. And he’s not one of these smug bumper-sticker Montana Native sorts either. And I’ll tell you one more thing about him– he’s in to the long run. Gets his oil checked regularly. Tires rotated. Always has extra gallons of gas in his garage. He said he lives in the most beautiful place he can imagine, and that’s okay by him. No need to travel. Plenty to do right here in his own valley. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, he said, watching me wilt. Although he’s not the kind to overly-measure a mood.
“I don’t get it,” I admitted. “How can you live here and not ski and not feel guilty about it? You don’t fish. You don’t hunt. You don’t even have a horse! Heck—you don’t even have a dog! Your idea of a perfect Sunday is a day spent with a history book about Queen Victoria. Maybe a little walk in the meadow. See a bird or two.”
He said this: “Montana has been here a lot longer than skiing. Fishing. Hunting. Horses—well maybe not horses…Heh-eh…but dogs, anyway.” He said that, and it changed my life. For a day. And a glorious day it was. I called three friends, and like an alcoholic at an AA meeting said, I hate skiing. I’m Laura Munson, and I hate skiing. It felt like I’d shed a tumor or something. I sat on the couch and read a book about Tuscan cooking and watched the snow fall without thinking for one second that the whole of it was only as good as the numb of my cheeks and my whooping ability to nail an Aspen tree with a bull’s eye of perfectly packed snow. What’s wrong with snow angels?, I said to myself. What’s wrong with catching snow on your tongue and calling it good? What’s wrong with watching snow fall from your window seat, with the cat curled on your lap? (This kind of deductive reasoning and ten bucks can get you a cup of coffee in New York.)
I have another friend. He is a fishing guide all summer in Alaska, and then comes down here to Whitefish to ski in the winter. In the fall, he hunts deer. Not all deer. One deer in particular. He goes out in the morning alone, and walks the woods, looking for one specific buck. It’s been four years of this. Other deer present themselves, but he doesn’t take them. He knows his buck now. He knows where he sleeps, where he roams. He’s learned a lot about squirrels and weather, stalking this buck. This is what he can tell me of hunting.
My first year living in Montana, a childhood friend came to visit from New York City where he is a trader of bonds. He had a ten month old and his wife was expecting a baby in four weeks. He wanted to come to Montana and do anything but change diapers, get his wife pickles…no potato chips…no pickles, and yell at people on the phone about money. The first day he sat and stared out the window, content. (I was thrilled.) The second day he looked at the ski mountain and said, “I gotta go up there.” (Okay. When in Rome…) The next day he saw a dogsledder and said, “I gotta try that.” (Had to see a guy about a dog—humor. Okay, whatever.) That afternoon he saw the local casino and said, “I gotta try my hand at cards.” (I gave him the number of the local taxi service, which is, incidentally, a guy in a mid-70’s pick-up truck, probably occupying the seat next to him at the bar, albeit a fine driver.) The next morning he said, “I’ve got a hangover and my leg muscles are killing me. It’s exhausting here. I feel like I’m back in New York. Let’s just lay low today.”
I told him not to worry. Montana seems to have that effect on people. Something about getting out there and conquering it that nobody can resist. (Unless you’re me. Or my Atlas-less friend.) “It’s exhausting just considering the myriad ways in which one can keep oneself dry, warm, and in motion in the state of Montana,” I told him. “Relax. I give you permission. We’ll listen to the opera at the Met on NPR.”
This took care of his hangover, fast. “We could at least drive into Glacier National Park today, I suppose,” he said, nervously. “Just tell me they have Ibuprophen in Montana.”
So we drove into the Park. We got out. We stood by a river. I thought: Finally. A friend with whom I can sit on a rock, and just be. No guilt. No pressure to be in any form of aerobic, cardio-vascular frenzy. Minutes went by. He stood up. Paced. (He’s a bond trader; he can’t help it.) He found three chunky rose-colored river rocks and one by one, pummeled them into the ice, whooping, raising his hands in victory, suggesting, then, that we play a version of Boci ball in which we see how many rocks we can slide into the holes he had just made in what was otherwise, a smooth white canvas of Mother Nature. “Oh no! Not you too! Can’t we just sit here? Can’t we just be?” I objected.
He shrugged and played alone for a while.
It looked fun, but I had set a precedent– (which is another way of saying, in this instance anyway, I was scared.) I don’t recognize this. Give me something from the German Expressionist movement—let me tell you all about the mystic poets of the 14th century—how ‘bout we talk Conspiracy Theory regarding the foils of the Liberal Arts education?
But I threw in my fear towel, got up, and said, “Fine. Lemme me have a turn.”
I was rose-colored rock. He was sage green. We bowled away the afternoon on the thinly-iced banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River. There was whooping a-plenty. Even from me. I hadn’t whooped like that before. I’m not sure I had ever whooped at all.
He wrote me a week later to tell me that our afternoon on the river was the thing he’ll remember most about Montana.
I have an elderly friend who visits from Chicago. He likes to take long walks in town. One day, he stood on the viaduct for hours, watching the freight trains change cars and tracks. “Incredible, this Montana,” he said in a hushed version of his immigrant Italian accent. “When I am tired of looking at the trains, I look up at the mountains. When I am tired of looking at the mountains, I look at the trains.” Then his eyes went a little crazed and he leaned in and said, “There is a verse in the Bible that I never understood. It is in Romans. Chapter Eight, I think. Paul is talking. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Now I understand. Groaning.” And I hadn’t even taken him into Glacier National Park yet.
Now I think of the pair of women I passed ten years or so ago, when I was living in Washington, and still so bullied by whoopers that I was attempting to climb a section of Mt. Rainier. Two women, with wooden, hand-whittled walking sticks, wool pants, old stiff leather hiking boots, bandanas around their necks…two grey-haired crow-footed older women stood rubber-necking a blanket of moss. I stopped. It was too green not to. They were too Patagonia-free not to. They were too still not to.
They smiled at me, so ogly and goofy-eyed. “Isn’t it beautiful?” they said, together.
“Yes,” I said, the way you talk to an Alzheimer’s patient.
“We take this hike every year and every year we see if we can do it slower than the last,” they traded off saying.
And I stood there for a while too, watching the green, seeing it for the green and not for the happy grey heads which nodded at it like old friends. And when I turned to go, as I recall, it was not for lack of courage, but for a genuine hunger to move on. Slowly. To maybe get to know this trail. To invite myself into a lifelong acquaintance with Mother Nature. To abuse a quote meant for Hollywood, to find the there, there.
And as I walked on, I heard the smallest little sound, from behind, like a mouse’s glee. But it was a whoop. It was. I remember it now.
It has been fifteen years that I have lived in the Northwest—almost half my life. I still haven’t done much in the middle of the night except for waking up to tend to my babies. But I know how to go down the stairs now…to pull up my robe around my neck, and step out into the night chill and stand there and see what gifts might present themselves. A deer or two. The distant glare of fox eyes. The green swirls of the Northern Lights. A Great Horned owl silhouette. A meteor shower like the sky is falling. There is always something. That is the promise. I wish I could tell that girl all those years ago that there is elegance in every kind of moment that Mother Nature presents. And you don’t need to be strong or brave or even particularly adept to know it. All you have to be is open. I wish I could have given her that permission.
“Creation is groaning,” I would have said.
“Sit a spell. Whoop if you must.”