From Meteorites to Motel 6: The Pain of Re-Entry


I woke up the morning I wrote this in a Motel 6 to the sound of a rodent-sized dog barking its head off. When I staggered to the window and pulled open the curtain, I saw a very large, slightly clad man with tattoos over 50% of his body smoking a cigarette with one hand and drinking a beer with the other (7 a.m.), periodically telling the yapping "Princess" to shut the "heck" up. Princess seemed to me a strange name for a very large tattooed man's rat terrier, but soon enough a comely woman appeared, smoking as she came, with tattoos over 85% of her body, and some visible piercings, too. It was a fascinating wake-up call at the end of ten days in wild country.

But they left the light on for us.

One day earlier I sat for four hours on a rock in the Lochsa River just inside Idaho reading a book. From time to time I looked up at the dark evergreens that carpeted the steep slopes evenly from the river to the top of the Bitterroot Mountains. Hawks flew in stately leisure low over the water. Orange, yellow and red wildflowers graced the little meadows in the river bends. The never-ending waters of the Lochsa rolled gently over the lower half of my body, certainly not too hot, just barely not too cold. Whenever I looked up from the pages of my book, I saw tens of thousands of points of lights dancing on the river all the way to where it turned a corner and disappeared forever into the American West. It was one of those heaven on earth days, those Huck Finn days, those A River Runs Through It days. I tried to breathe deep and live deliberately (as Thoreau advises), to drink in the whole perfection of the day and the place. "Suck out all the marrow of life," said he. I tried to be fully present and fully alive to the present moment, because I knew that it would be at least a year before I sat in that river again, and maybe never.

Maybe never. There is a haunting feel to those words.

I haven't kept a precise count, but I reckon that was about the twentieth time I have sat in the Lochsa for at least an hour on a summer afternoon, about the same number of times I have sat for an hour in the sacred Little Missouri River. I'm not quite sure why, but sitting still in a thing that flows past forever almost invariably puts you in a philosophic mood. Where does all the water come from and where does it go? Why doesn't it ever run out, like the hot water in a Motel 6 bathroom? If you threw a ping-pong ball into the water, and there were no dams anywhere downriver, would that ball eventually slide past New Orleans and bob into the Gulf of Mexico? How long would it take? What is my message to the people of New Orleans—or Lisbon?

What happens when we die? How am I different from the trout that just brimmed the river surface, or are we just two equally important (and unimportant) momentary effusions of the unrelenting Life Force that covers the planet with verdure? How does a Salmon find its way back to its upstream spawning grounds years after it flowed over the bar into the salt of the Pacific Ocean? Why do humans scurry about so much pretending they have urgent things to accomplish, and why does our species quarrel so unceasingly? Pronghorn antelope don't gossip and backbite and take Prozac.

The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BCE) said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." The river changes. The water that flowed over me in Lochsa will soon be redistributed over the broad sweep of the planet. And we all change too. I know I am distinctly a different man (in some respects) from the one who sat in the Lochsa last year at this time. Frankly, I wish I were more not less different. I wish we were really capable of re-inventing ourselves, of re-booting our lives, of burying the Old Adam once and for all.

This is the point each summer when my Lewis and Clark cultural tour in Montana and Idaho ends, and I return to "civilization" (i.e., Bismarck). I woke up yesterday in a funky, perfect Spartan lodge west of Missoula, and I ended it at Motel 6 in Miles City. Because I was not quite ready for re-entry, I spent the day driving slowly, even aimlessly, along US highway 12 from Helena to Forsythe. It is one of the most beautiful roads in America. I never once turned on the car radio. For the first few hours it parallels the Musselshell River, named by Lewis and Clark on May 20, 1805. Then, at Melstone (east of Roundup), the river turns north and US 12, continuing east, enters some of the most beautiful empty plains country you will ever see. I stopped several times to take photographs, knowing in advance that no photograph can do justice to the vast, unimproved, un-industrialized openness of the countryside, where even the cattle are so swallowed up that they barely register.

I thought of my artist friend Catherine Meier, now of Duluth, who gravitates to such places and draws huge paper "canvases" of undifferentiated plains landscapes. Since I met her in Red Cloud, Nebraska, earlier this summer, and saw some of her stunning representations—some big enough to cover an entire wall in a gallery or auditorium—I have been found myself saying, somewhere or other, "Catherine Meier needs to set up her shop here." There was a place on my drive yesterday that was so beautiful that I instantly nominated it as a top-ten Great Plains landscape.

In a few minutes I am going to push "send," and find gas, soda, and licorice, then amble on to Glendive, Medora, and then Bismarck. There is light rain in Miles City, just right for the melancholy feel of the day of return. "The world is too much with us," Wordsworth wrote, "late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

I made it up the Wendover Death March for the umpteenth time, with less pain and exhaustion than usual. Thirty of us sat around a fire while Nez Perce elder and historian Allen Pinkham explained why his people, the Nimiipuu, decided to assist, not kill, Lewis and Clark. (There was a long debate!) When he began to explain how the Nez Perce named the constellations of the night, a meteorite shot across the vault of the sky. All of us were alive in ways we had not been, and probably will not be, six months prior or hence.

At the same time we saw the International Space Station move slowly, but surprisingly bright, from one horizon to the next. One of our group, an outstanding New York Times reporter, said, "Hey, there is an phone app that tells you when the ISS is over your zip code."

There is pain in re-entry. The world is too much with us.