Amaris Ketcham

Northwest and Inland

I was beginning to disbelieve the information I’d received about Montana. Dive bars all shut down for winter or longer; winter disappeared under a light late-February sunburn. I’d heard stories about the sonic boom of the temperature dropping fast to fifty-four below, the cracking freeze of a cold-snapped tree limb. I expected electrostatic valleys, charged white with snow, as blank as unwritten pages. I expected roadside misspellings: Tervan, windblown script for tavern. The woodstove smell of hot larch smoke. A country as raw as an entry in the journals of Lewis and Clark. I’d worked my way through a list of books with the hope of understanding this area and planned a trip with some friends to discover what makes the Inland Northwest tick, how writing captures place.

And the outset sounded promising: I may have imagined it, but I think that the Spokane weatherman said zero percent chance of sun. Sure enough, passing through Idaho, pines tickled the fat fog, and cloud-marbled blue skies seemed an image from some distant summer. I’d piled into a white van with the other sightseers. Jonathan—a man with long hair and a day’s scruff of beard, a knower of the north, a familiar of highways—drove. Shotgun sat Carol, mother of two, who lived in a doublewide in eastern Washington and entered the van with homemade biscotti and gluten-free brownies. Sam occupied alone the first row behind them, a young man writing his life in mix tapes and short essays. Sabrina, poet and ballerina, had cashed in her food stamps for fresh ciabatta bread, havarti cheese, honey, and prosciutto. Erik knew the hum and tick of the highway, each divot one that located him near this summit, that lake, a wilderness he’d mapped internally during his youth outdoors. John, who was wearing flip-flops, shared stories of frozen beards in Helena and cross-country skiing to school. I was a Southerner in the North, riding with the descendants of those who had leapfrogged west, descendents of the untamed, intimates of the wilderness and winter.

I had always lived in the South and Southwest: Florida, DC, Kentucky, and New Mexico. The previous fall, I’d moved north on a whim. I watched the television shows Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks to prepare, and I read folktales and the Spokane phone book. Phone books have a surprising amount of information in them: “Washington has twenty-eight varieties of evergreens, including white pine, fir, tamarack, spruce, and cedar.” Even with this knowledge of the area, the locals and the recently relocated alike questioned, “You’re wintering?”

I had to read more to figure it out. I read Winter, a memoir where Rick Bass had the same experience as a Texan moving to the Yaak Valley, Montana. The locals had asked, “You’re going to winter here?” The season had such a powerful effect on the psyche that it had become verb. 

I’d never seen winter, real winter. When I looked around at the landscape—eastern Washington’s basalt channeled scablands, sagebrush and bunch grass, pines only in certain elevation zones—and when I read the Internet—desert, no precipitation—I thought that they must have been joking. The winter they described might as well as have been a season in the Yukon spent boiling lichen soups and hunting seals. “You’ll freeze even indoors,” they said, and, “You won’t make it.” And that first winter, we got a hundred inches of snow, and I struggled with words to describe the dozens of ways it fell.

Clearly the phone book had missing information. Sure the population of the Inland Empire might be almost two million folks, comparable to New Mexico, but the numbers meant nothing solid. Why not turn to the local literature, gather a sense of place that might be more important than the objective facts of the place? So I read some prose and some poems, and I packed a bag with waterproof pants, sweat-wicking Under Armor, and mittens, and I set out early from Spokane.
Sam put on a playlist to set the traveling tone. The songs took the mind back four, five decades. The van sped past Little America, the rural suburbs, the modern interpretation of Sears kit homes, houses without cellar doors, spread along the highway. A sign warned of pedestrians crossing and carrying briefcases, and I had to laugh—sure, folks might walk across the 45 mph road, but I doubted that they’d have tidy reams in combination-locked cases.

Not enough Red Headed Stranger in the mix, Jonathan said. Not enough “Goodnight, Irene,” I said. We neared the first destination of the literature trip: Sandpoint, Idaho. I knew the lake by the name Fingerbone, from the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, but the real name was Lake Pend Oreille. And the song that I wanted to hear, American folk standard, fresh from a Lomax recording with analog fuzz, “Goodnight, Irene,” had reappeared in the book through several chunks of chapters. A line of the lyrics titled another book we had read as a group, Sometimes a Great Notion. Each time I lifted the tome, I thought, “to jump in the Wakonda River and drown.” What was it about the song that would come alive in this place? The mere company of the AM signals skipping over the settled states, the radio as the portable friend and the first connector of the people scattered through the land—some code in the tune might crack the whole Northwest open. The song spoke of the alternating pull of the country and the town, love easy-come-easy-go, but heartbreak all the same and with it, the suicidal tendencies, the desire to pop a little morphine and dream of the girl gone.  

But on the beach of Pend Oreille/Fingerbone Lake, round rocks formed messages: initial plus initial equals heart forever, initial hearts initial, year heart, heart. Like a public bathroom wall, love was going strong in Sandpoint. No heartbreak, no morphine dreams by the look of that beach. The sun shone. The water lapped the shore. The laving movement surprised me. From the novel, I’d expected the lake frozen a thick four feet, so solid that skaters could have fires in fifty gallon drums set on cinderblocks on the ice. A Saturday without any wool-capped kids on the lake didn’t seem like much of a Saturday. Jonathan stopped the van so we could step out, take off our shoes, get sand under our toenails, and feel the sub-arctic clamp of the water around our feet. He pointed out the nearby sights: “See that peninsula over there? That’s where I imagine Ruth and Lucille camping in the driftwood—and there? That’s where I imagine Sylvie and Ruth trying to get the invisible children to come out.”

Yes, I saw: across the little bay, a mountain coming up through a slice of fog. I could imagine the two young characters there, in their makeshift driftwood fort, cramped in the fetal position, listening to the coyotes crying, the eerie loons, the owls, the hawks. None of the imagined cries sounded in reality—in reality, not even waterfowl visited the lake that morning. Deserted. I followed the second line drawn by the pointing finger; across the water, there vagrant and vagrant-to-be stuck marshmallows in tree limbs to coax imagined children out from hiding.

The book described the shore like so: “…stones were a mossy and vegetable green, and some were as white as bits of tooth, and some of them were hazel, and some of them looked like rock candy. Farther up the beach were tufts of grasses from the year before, and leafless vines, and sodden leaves and broken ferns, and the black, dull, musky dormant woods. The lake was full of quiet waves, and smelled cold, and smelled of fish.”

In comparison, this shoreline looked manicured. No algae or driftwood washed ashore. Even the round stones seemed scrubbed of moss. In a far cry from the “awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere,” this little town was growing Resort, getaway destination and tidying up nature for the sightseers. People like us.

We hopped back into the van, decided to pass through town for a look and a cup of coffee. The train station where the characters would have hopped the rail had a bypass sprouting out of its parking lot. One little tavern stood in the center of a hotel block—the one little tavern that refused to sell out to the Patagonia’ed realtors—and kept its misspelled sign “Tervan.”

Americano in hand, and it was time to cruise along, look at the dirt roads intersecting with the highway, don’t think about how once a town has a bypass, Wal-Mart comes in and Les Schwab sets up a tire shop, and the speed of the bypass slows and soon the town needs another bypass to reroute around the first one. Carol was telling a story about having her first beer in a bar that used to be just over there, and I looked out the window, away from her memory, at the private piers, beached from low lake levels. We drove past the Pack River Delta, a floodplain fractaled with ice channels.

I was curious about what the Northerners thought of the change. I remembered the gentrification in Albuquerque, how they tore up the 100 block of Harvard Street and all the historic adobes to build ugly brick apartments, and how I spent the better part of a summer saying that newcomers wouldn’t know what it once meant. I remembered talking with some homeless guys I called the Cannery Rowers in D.C. because they always sat at the bus stop on R and 14th, and one morning we talked about how they weren’t welcomed in the neighborhoods they grew up in, how the Section 8 housing had become condos and co-ops.

But Erik, born and raised in northern Idaho, was sleeping through his home country passage, and the front seat was too far away for commentary, too swaddled in their REI coats and memories, so I turned to Sabrina, who was putting honey on some bread.

“I can’t wait ‘til we get to the Dirty Shame,” she said. “I’m dancing tonight. As soon as I take off these jeans, I’m putting on a skirt. I’m not going to drink unless some guy from Montana buys me a beer, and he will once he gets me dancing and sees that real women don’t tap their toes, they stomp their heels.”

The Dirty Shame would be quite the highlight. When I told people about my intentions—“experiential literature trip,” I’d called it—I couldn’t help to bring up the bars I wanted to see. Bars occupied a lot of space in the local writing. The Dirty Shame was a priority bar, the place where the Yaak Valley locals played games of chance, drank American pilsners, took a beer break from winter—I’d read it in Rick Bass’s Winter, and I wanted to see it more clearly than a sketch inserted between paragraphs. How could one read Richard Hugo’s poems and not go barhopping across Western Montana? But when I told people about expectations of country dive bars, they figured me for a drunk, not a reader, on a bender, not on an “experiential literature trip.”

In Bass’s book, the bar is used to balance people and place—to keep the book from being straight nature writing, straight meditation on each snowflake falling, a long rumination on the necessity of collecting wood to burn. The Yaak Valley of the book is home to only thirty people, rugged individualists celebrating self-reliance, and they visit the Dirty Shame Saloon to swap information and stories. It’s the type of place any anthropologist would love, because the well-peopled bar is a place of information gathering: let’s have a beer, then let me tell you about dream hoops, why to keep a hatchet in your trunk, don’t forget to check your antifreeze, this is what’s wrong with your chainsaw, here’s how you survive winter. I didn’t want to go to the bar to get drunk; I wanted to go there to eavesdrop.

The Dirty Shame entered our sights. No trucks were in the lot. We drove up to the door. Carol read aloud the handwritten note: Closed ‘til Spring. No explanation.

It seems as though when there’s no beer to drink, Northwesterners turn to outdoor activity. We hiked up Mount Hensley instead, up the winding switchbacks of iced-over logging roads. This little mountain, one of the places that Rick Bass was always returning from in his winter diary, a place not well-described except in its absence of total description. We summited right at sunset, the full moon up, pinks and oranges playing off the Purcell Mountains that went in long vistas in every direction. A person could still disappear out there. On the way down, the only light the moon’s, slipping in the pine shadows, I told John ghost stories of people lost in the Purcells, rough adults and marshmallow-eating children, and John did not appreciate the dark fright.

Later, in Troy, looking for a bar recommended by the writer Denis Johnson, a bar also closed, we settled for one down the street. There I could listen. The Troy patrons said all the cops just got fired, to watch my back, because there were young, hot-to-trot cops out, who’d pull you over for a taillight missing, any little thing. I drank a beer out of a Mason jar. They didn’t serve tap in jars anymore in the nearest town, Libby; Libby had changed, Libby didn’t allow drinks on the street or smoke in the bars. Sabrina didn’t get her jar of porter, but she did get a dance out of Erik, who spun her in the slot formation of West Coast swing, between the pool tables and a wall covered in caricature portraits, bedpans turned banjos, and My Goodness My Guinness posters. Troy wasn’t a town to paint red, so we turned in at the motel, where one of the new cops had a weekly room.

The next morning, we had full sun again, and the motel owner gossiped with us about the Dirty Shame. Some yuppie from New Jersey bought it, he said, fixed it up and cleaned it and carpeted it and now, no one in the Yaak wanted to grab a watery Kokanee beer there. Who knows if it would open again? Classic case of gentrification. Even the Yaak Valley, even the rough and wild interior that I’d heard about, wasn’t immune to Garden Staters with big ideas and big money.

It was gossip, popular secondhand news because Troy needed a place like the Yaak close in geographic proximity but far in the perception of wildness. Troy needed such a place to feel like more of civilized town. If the juxtaposition of the town close to the untamed country changed, then Troy’s self-definition might change. It’s part of the human desire to locate oneself in the physical world, and part of the act of description that relies on the difference of places. As Gary Snyder would note, just to use the word “wild” is to tap into that act of description of what something is not: animals are wild when they are not domesticated; plants, not cultivated; land, not inhabited; and men, not restrained.

I started layering what I’d seen in Sandpoint on top of Montana. Could the Yaak Valley become the next Sandpoint, with outdoor Coldwater Creek clothing stores, bypasses around business fronts, and summertime music festivals? I was beginning to disbelieve the information I’d received about Montana. Sure, the books I’d read were out of date by twenty to two hundred years, if you counted the journals of Lewis and Clark.

Sam finally queued up some Willie Nelson as we headed south down Highway 56. An ibex stood close to the road, drinking in the day, and I recalled the poem “Driving Montana” by Richard Hugo, how the day was a woman who loved you, and how towns might arrive ahead of imagined schedule. I was digging the songs, the Hugo version of Montana. Looking for a triggering town to start the poetic synapses firing, Hugo had combined exploration with presentation. Searching—with its own missteps and surprises—brilliantly united with knowledge and skill in these poems to create such a beautiful effect on the reader. I recalled some lines he wrote: This is home because some people/ go to Perma and come back/ from Perma saying Perma/ is no fun. I knew it then: I’d need to know that maybe Perma wasn’t fun and that the only bar in Dixon still stood.

We came upon Perma and Perma passed quickly. Jonathan said, “What’s the poll on Perma?” and we came to the conclusion: probably no fun. I was positively itching with excitement when we passed the robin’s egg blue cinderblock Post Office, with its signage written in the classic 1960s Helvetica. No one cares/ about the wanted posters/ in the brand new concrete block P.O. We parked and all filed out of the van and into the little bar. Green cheap plaster and the stores/ across the street toward the river/ failed. Even though it’s banned to smoke in Montana bars, you could smell the burnt cigarettes when entering. This air/ is fat with gangsters I imagine/ on the run. A sign on the bathroom door read: If you take a leak, buy a drink. I asked for a Bud in a bottle and put my three bucks down.

Our number and out-of-towners attitude overwhelmed the woman behind the bar. She didn’t bother to slide her ashtray out of sight. We asked after the last bartender there, whom Jonathan had known. Deceased. We said we’d come looking for this place, guided by a poem, and she knew the one we referenced. Someone had written a country-western song based off the poem and the bar and Dixon in general. She played it for us, lightening up a bit, no longer worried that we’d come to take Dixon by storm, shielded by our North Face vests and literary allusions. I want home full of grim permission./ You can go as out of business here/ as rivers or the railroad station./ I knew it entering. Yes, I thought, Home. I knew it entering.

I sat on a stool, drank my Bud fast. This bar was the thing that I had been searching for, the last standing relic of place-based literature on our short tour. I wanted to leave as soon as I’d arrived and seen it for myself. I didn’t want to disturb the natural beauty of that bar in Dixon, only to take a mental snapshot, to remember it just as it had been and was right then. I wanted to leave without a trace, pack in and pack out as carefully as one would in a National Forest, dead out any trace my lifestyle might leave there, and let the only bar in Dixon remain “The Only Bar in Dixon.”

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