Deep Breathing Under Big Sky
Cowboys on horseback still manage to just about stop my heart. It’s always been this way, and I’ve never been free of it. It started early: when I was growing up in South Carolina, my sister and I used to watch old westerns with our father: movies like McClintock, Shane, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Hang ‘Em High. I was captivated with dusty ranges, rocky spires and plummeting waterfalls, and the desperate things some of those men would do—guns usually blazing—to get there. And while there was an age I certainly reached where I started to pay most attention to the flop of blonde hair over Redford’s heartbreaking face, or the rakish, lusty glint in Newman’s gorgeous baby blues, I always watched the horses. I watched the actors who rode them: from the extras in the wide-open range scenes—cowboys gripping saddle horns with one hand and waving hats with the other, Indians riding bareback and full-throttle, infinitely cool—to the easy way leading men like Eastwood and the Duke sat the saddle, how they leaned back in it, heels down, as if they were more centaur than man: the horse merely an appendage.
I can relate to Gena Rowlands, who in the movie Something to Talk About plays a woman star-struck at the sight of her husband (played by Robert Duvall) on horseback. Each time he enters the Grand Prix ring in his black cut-away jacket, fawn jodphers and shiny boots, with that shit-eating grin Duvall gives so well, Rowlands’s character takes a deep breath, stunned by the beauty of him. In the movie, Duvall’s character is a blustering Southern patriarch who it turns out years ago rogued around on his wife, and even though when Rowlands finds out she’s so furious with him she can’t see straight, it just doesn’t matter: when he gets on that horse, all her good intentions evaporate. And when she sucks in breath at the sight of him, her elderly mother leans forward, places a gentle hand on Rowlands’s arm and says, “It’s just a man on a horse, baby girl. Just a man on a horse.”
Maybe it’s blindly romantic, but a man on horseback—a man who can truly ride a horse, and ride it well—stirs something elemental in me. It turns my imagination toward long stretches of yellow prairie, wild, foaming rivers, and the sense that there’s a sort of life to be led in this world that has nothing to do with planning and study, and everything to do with freedom and adventure: a life led only by nature’s rugged yoke. A man on a horse knows this: knows he’s got more than a thousand pounds of thrill and danger beneath him, and that it’ll all be worth it at the end of the day, when he can watch the molten setting of an ancient sun over land he’s sweated into, pounded into with all that he has.
Driving down Montana Highway 69 the other day, I left the quaint downtown of Boulder behind and headed south towards Whitehall, intent on sightseeing. Rows of golden aspens interspersed with orange cottonwoods and mountain ash lined each side of the road, enveloping the straight passage paralleling the Boulder River in a tunnel of reflective light. I cracked my window despite the chill, and cranked up the radio to a station playing classic country. With the snow-dusted Elkhorn Mountains to my left and the rising, green Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to my right, and the long, glacial-gutted plain ahead, ending miles away in a white wall of towering Rockies, I felt as if I’d finally come home.
I breathed in Montana then, sucked in the wide-open like a drowning victim gulps air when she finally clears the deep, fully aware it’s the best thing she’s ever tasted. On this October day, Montana was a promise—the same promise the West has held for gutsy, land-hungry, flawed and dogged souls since the days of old, when the frontier beckoned those willing to danger past the ancient boundary of the Mississippi River and into the wild.
Rounding a slow curve in the two-lane highway, my eyes followed a fence line stretching out into forever. Suddenly, at a break in the pine posts was an honest-to-goodness cowboy atop his faithful mount, dressed in a wide-brimmed Stetson, plaid shirt, boots, jeans and even chaps. I slowed the car, my heart picking up beat so rapidly I had to swallow. The cowboy was leaning off the side of the horse like an acrobat, some kind of mean-looking tool in one of his leather-gloved hands, repairing a section of barbed wire; sitting patiently near the horse’s back hooves was a black and white sheepdog. It wasn’t until the cowboy looked up and his eyes met mine that I realized I’d brought the car to a complete stop. (This isn’t the most intelligent thing to do, especially on a country highway in a state whose speed limits are already set at about Mach Ten, and even then seem merely a suggestion.)
In my younger, unmarried days I’d have probably pulled the car off to the side, snatched my camera from the passenger seat and ambled over to the cowboy with a smile, asked sweetly for a picture…and if I was feeling particularly sassy, a ride. But the beauty of it all—him there atop that whiskey-sleek buckskin, against the backdrop of craggy mountainside and crisp blue sky—was too much for my weak, man-on-a-horse-loving heart. He simply stilled from his work and nodded at me, and I blinked from my trance and stomped on the gas. When I peeked in the rearview mirror, I saw that he’d taken off his hat and was looking after my speeding car, the dog now prancing about on all fours, wondering what was up.
It didn’t matter the man was a stranger, that he was of an indeterminate age and probably married with several children, and that to him, fixing that section of fence was most likely a mild annoyance: a weekly or even daily part of the bone-weary work it truly takes to be a modern Montana rancher. It didn’t matter I’m an almost thirty year-old, happily married and reasonably intelligent woman… and that I recognize intrinsically, though the profession is honestly intriguing and really quite honorable, the cultural icon of the romantic cowboy is in large part historic myth.
It didn’t matter, because as I continued down Highway 69 towards those wickedly seductive mountains, hillbilly music cranked honky-tonk loud, I felt like a teenage girl in the ‘50s who’d been blown a kiss by Elvis. And when common sense whispered, “It’s just a man on a horse,” I laughed out loud to the empty car, grinned my own shit-eating grin.
I grinned, because it doesn’t matter how modern I may be—I’ve known it since childhood, and I know it to be true: Baby girl, ain’t nothin’ like a man on a horse.
* * *
I came to Montana with space on my mind: space from my students, from my husband (who I happen to love) and from the life I know at home as well as I know the premature wrinkles that began to rivulet out of the corners of my eyes when I turned twenty-six, almost four years ago. Space was something I craved the way an addict needs one last cigarette before quitting, or the way a claustrophobe in a crowd feels when the people move and everything opens up into breathable blue sky.
I came to Montana on a promise: a Woolf-ian room of my own, and time—time in which to write, to collect myself and hone the core of the artist I like to think I am, and to funnel that promise into warm, energy-driven fingers dancing over my laptop: untethered creation. This promise came from the Montana Artists’ Refuge, a nonprofit artists’ residency in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana, in a tiny, former gold and copper mining town called Basin. I’d applied to the Refuge back in May, when I was finishing out another semester teaching literature and composition to word-wary eighteen and nineteen year-olds as an adjunct instructor at a college in North Carolina.
But something else had also happened to me that month I’d cast my aspiring talent into the application abyss: I’d had a miscarriage, and I felt at the time—after being commandeered to our couch for almost three weeks, waiting for the flux of blood and emotional upheaval to cease—that my life was careening down a path I’d always expected, but never really craved. Being pregnant at all meant I was indeed old enough to be pregnant, and at a place and time in my marriage and in my life where having a baby wasn’t only expected, it was considered by most to be something I should want—harder and stronger than I’d ever wanted anything.
And though there were times during the course of the pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage when my want of a child careened down a rollercoaster track from “yes” to “no” to “maybe-just-not-now,” I felt—more than anything else, more than the fear and shame and loss, more than the vulnerability—a sense of utter relief. The relief was a subtle burning beneath my skin, and it stayed there even when my emotions went in a completely different direction: like when I’d visited my doctor for the third time during the whole mess, the time when the nurse looked up from the ultrasound with a kindly, pitying sigh and said, “I’m so sorry,” and I walked out into a waiting room where four gorgeously fit pregnant women sat, and I called my husband from the car with a tearing grief in my heart, claiming it all made me feel so very lacking and lost. Even then, though, the relief was there, waiting for me to find peace, waiting for my hormones to even out, for my brain to decide none of this was my fault and that I wasn’t ready—sincerely was not ready—to be a mother.
Writing about it now is the first time I’ve thought of the miscarriage in weeks, and to write of it seems almost as if I’m telling the story of another character, not a tale of myself. But it doesn’t worry me, the disconnect, because “forgetting” about something of this magnitude is part of my personal coping mechanism. In fact, it’s the way I’ve always dealt with pain, a method passed down to me from generations of stubborn, mercurial Crawfords: block it out, by God, take away its power so the monster dies.
Here in the mountains of southwestern Montana, I’ve come to focus instead on more elemental pulls: cold air so penetrating it aches deep in my bones, the sunburst gold of silver-barked aspens lining rocky rivers and in the midst of evergreen forests, the simple relief of being alone in a sparse, inelegant room; and a quiet, fiercely idealistic hope that because of it all, I may just one day be a writer. I’ve already—in the short span of a week—fallen into edgy love, like a groupie at a rock concert, with the chest-expanding altitude, the riot of yellow willow along a wetland, glacier-carved valley; the smatter of gray-green sage sprouting defiantly from stony mountainside, and the delicate hoof-prints of elk in wet dirt. I’m in lust with the view from every highway pass: of flaxen, rolling hills dotted with perfectly triangular green trees; fat, black Angus cattle and lanky Quarter horses pasturing along a western range I’d seen before only in grainy cowboy movies and my own dreams; and clouds and endless, white-capped mountains three hundred and sixty degrees around, miles in the distance but so close under a big, unforgettable sky.
* * *
Sam walks his dog—wrestles with it, really—all the way down Basin Street every day after school. I know because that’s usually the time when I’m feeling if I don’t get outside I’ll spontaneously combust, and so I pad through the alley between the Refuge buildings in my moccasins, heft open the six foot tall wooden gate to the street, and say hello again to the world.
Basin Street is the town’s main thoroughfare; the only other streets are dirt and gravel roads that spider off from it, either up towards Deerlodge National Forest or down in the direction of Highway 15. The portion of Basin Street that moves through the town center consists of the two renovated, turn-of-the-century brick buildings of the Montana Artists’ Refuge, the Leaning Tower of Pizza, the Silver Saddle Bar, the tiny U.S. post office, and the High Note Café, its brick outside painted powder blue—already closed down for the winter because the proprietor claims she wasn’t getting enough business to stay open. Though the town rarely warrants a dot on a Montana map, and is certainly a place of contradictions amid the trailers, half-empty buildings and old trucks (yesterday I waved at a man in a Dale Earnhardt cap gunning his beautifully restored 1960s Mercedes out of town), it is a place of remarkable charm. Looking north, I see golden aspens and orange cottonwoods lining a rolling two-lane road, and in the distance the land picks up pace, passes the tiny Basin graveyard and the spindly remains of a mining operation, climbs into a virescent steep of perfect Douglas firs.
To the south, the view isn’t quite so lovely, but it holds its own on days when my mood is light: past muddy trucks and the Leaning Tower the mountainsides rise: a long, waving ridge of lodgepole pines, more firs, flaxen grass and rocks, with the burnt-red chimney of an abandoned mining smelter pointed skyward. The first day I met Sam and his chocolate lab, Rex, I was considering whether I’d muster the incentive to hike up and explore the smelter later that day. Rex was ambling ahead of Sam down the sidewalk, leash-less like all the dogs I’ve seen in Basin, with the kind of wriggling, happy half-trot labs employ even when they’re moving slow. I watched them come, hoping like a schoolgirl they’d stop so I could pet the dog.
“Great dog,” I said brightly, in a I-promise-I’m-not-one-of-those-scary-strangers-your-mom-warned-you-about kind of voice. Sam, who looks to be about twelve years old—with dark red hair, a round face and snub nose—narrowed heavy-lidded eyes above several big freckles.
He reached down and immediately grabbed Rex’s collar.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” I continued. “I’m okay with dogs. I’ve got a black lab back home.”
Sam let go of the collar and slowed his step, and my heart lifted. “Some people don’t like it,” he muttered, not meeting my eyes.
I barely had a chance to pet the happy-tongued Rex before boy and dog moved on down the street. Well, I considered, Southern charm just doesn’t get you anywhere.
Yesterday, though, my luck picked up. I was sitting outside in a grassy area beside one of the Refuge buildings, reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life for the third time, trying to put inspiration in a headlock and get it to say “uncle,” when I heard a bark and a whistle from outside the fence. I set the book aside and leaned back in my Crazy Creek chair; Rex’s big nose sniffed at the fence.
“Hey, fella,” I said. “How’s it going?”
An eye—a human one—blinked between the slats. “What’re you doing?” It asked.
I slid my chair around, trying to act as if I often talked to eyes in tall wooden fences. “I’m reading. What’re you doing?”
The eye blinked again. “Walking Rex. I’m bored. Where’re you from?”
Thankfully, I’d spent years as a counselor at a boys’ summer camp in North Carolina, and I speak conversational twelve year-old:
“I’m from South Carolina, but I live in North Carolina. School bites today, huh?”
“Yeah. We had to do sentences. They suck.” Rex barked once, shortly; I think he wanted in.
“Well,” I said, rocking back in my chair and keeping my eyes on his, “at least you’ve got Rex. Where’re y’all headed?”
“Knock on my door sometime, and I’ll go with you to Nowhere,” I offered, and Sam’s eye disappeared. I heard a scramble and a couple of knee bumps against wood, then his head popped over the fence.
“Rex likes you,” he grinned, and I grinned back.
“I like Rex.”
“Okay, see ya.” The head vanished, Rex barked again, and I hopped up, the Crazy Creek half-stuck to my fanny, to peer over the fence edge.
“Hey—my name’s Katie,” I called. Boy and dog were crossing the empty street in the sunshine, and Sam did a little backwards skip, tossed his hand up.
I watched until they disappeared down a side road, tumbling and hopping in that boy-dog way all at once, and sighed: time to head back inside.
Some days, that’s all it takes.
* * *
An underage cowboy named Frank is trying to convince me to cheat on my husband. Frank is a native Montanan, twenty years old (okay, so not so underage), and a junior at Montana Tech, in Butte. He’s also a lanky six-footer with a head of wild dark hair that falls from his beat-up cowboy hat into the collar of his Carhartt jacket, and is possessed of a face complete with a twice-broken nose, high, sharp cheekbones courtesy of a Flathead Indian grandmother, and a glint to his bedroom brown eyes that makes me think he doesn’t often hear the word “no.”
“I’ll take you riding on my family’s ranch. Bet an Easterner like you would get a kick out of riding Western,” Frank tells me, drumming his fingers on the beat-up wooden bar to the rhythm of the country song twanging out of the saloon speakers.
I’m about to shatter Frank’s illusions by telling him my age—soon to be thirty years old—because pointing to the rings on my left hand, glittering in the rope lighting above, hasn’t seemed to work. But he leans forward, snatching a paper coaster and flipping it against the edge of the bar, and the look of delight on his appealing face when he catches it reminds me so much of my own youth I grin despite myself, and I take a pull on the local Belgian White I let him buy me.
“Frank, you’re a good-looking guy. I know they’re plenty girls who’d be happy to go riding with you.”
“Oh, come on. Me and Hans’ll pick you up if you want. You said you wanted to see the ranch.”
He’s got me there. His parents have a cattle and guest ranch out along the Big Hole River, and I’ve been dying to see it since the first time we met, a week and half ago, at the post office in Basin. I look at myself in the mirror behind the bar, shaking my head. I’m dirty and flushed from the hike I completed in the national forest only an hour ago, and my blonde hair is caught back in a ponytail, my face devoid of makeup. There are tiny, maddening crinkles that spread out from the corners of my light blue eyes, and I only stopped in the Silver Saddle for a quick drink and a peek at the world before heading back to my laptop. Behind him in the mirrored background I watch his friend, Hans—another Tech student with whom he shares a house in Butte—horsing around with a group of older men at a table nearby. Hans is tall, too, his blondeness a result of being descendant of the Scandinavians who once settled in the area, a bit bullish in stature but sweet.
I roll my eyes. There’s no way I’m going horseback riding alone in the wild Montana backcountry with these boys, innocent as they may be. “Frank, I’m flattered. And I’d love to go riding, but maybe next week… with a group. I’m married. For that matter, I’m almost ten years older than you.”
His brown eyes widen slightly: he hadn’t expected that. “Thirty, really? No way!”
He tosses the coaster down the bar, twists on his stool and studies me. “You don’t look thirty,” he says after moment. “I thought twenty-five at most.”
I snort—I can’t help it—and rummage in my daypack for my wallet. “Thanks, I think. I’ll see you around; I need to get home.”
I start to toss a few dollars onto the bar, but Frank reaches out and lays a warm hand on my wrist. “I got it,” he says, fishing in his back pocket.
It’s hard not to like this kid: he’s handsome, engaging, paying his way through school while preparing to run his parents’ ranch one day just as generations of the men in his family have done since the first one settled in southwestern Montana after the Civil War. He’s not seen anything of the world—hasn’t ever left the West, actually, and believes the same sorts of things his parents do about politics and life and religion, and will most likely go on believing them, never questioning, his entire life. (The girls back East would eat him alive, I think absently, but he’d enjoy every minute of it.)
He walks me to the door, holds it open to the chill. The wind is whipping down Basin Street, flinging dirt and gravel along the mud-caked asphalt. I zip my fleece jacket to the chin and turn, looking up.
“Thanks for the drink. Now go find a girl your own age,” I order, walking backwards, my hands stuffed as far as they’ll go into the jacket pockets, my nose already painfully cold.
“Yeah, whatever,” he says. “None of them talk like you.”
I start to jog, my backpack bouncing. It’s not even a block to my apartment at the Refuge, but I’m freezing and I know there’s coffee and a story waiting.
Inside, I crank up the heat and toss my jacket over the back of a rocking chair, take a seat at my makeshift writing desk. As soon as I start the laptop, I notice an Instant Message waiting to be read. It’s from my friend Dan, a Chicago native I’ve known since I was a senior at Clemson University. I met him on a school trip, we had a brief and heady fling, and have kept in touch ever since: through my various heartbreaks to happy marriage, through his one broken engagement and one happy one, and through a series of relocations for both of us. I’m convinced our friendship has lasted, even though we live so far apart we haven’t set eyes on each other in eight years, because our respective cognizance remains eternally rooted in the idealistic land of the twenty-one year-old.
I chuckle into the empty room, rubbing my hands together for warmth. Dan, like Frank, has always had a thing for a girl with a Southern accent. In fact, he and his roommate used to save my messages on his answering machine for weeks, just so they could listen to my voice. Mortified and thrilled at the same time, I’d begged him to erase them (I’d heard myself recorded before, and it wasn’t pretty), but he got too much of a kick out of me to give in. Funny, I thought, that Frank—almost the age Dan and I’d been then—had just admitted to the same.
I think there must be a hole in the time-space continuum here in Basin, directly above my apartment. Maybe it’s being alone and finally having a chance to reflect on my life and what’s led me to this point in it, but the oddest bits of my past have popped up to whisper in my ear at night, and I dream of old relationships, could-have-beens and glad-they-weren’ts. A few nights ago I dreamt of an old flame (an ex-Army Ranger who’d broken my heart and managed to severely scar my pride) only to wake the next morning to find he’d emailed me. I hadn’t heard from the man—who consequently, is happily married—in years. I’d sat at my desk while reading it, a bit stunned, my coffee dripping, and muttered sonofabitch very quietly, just in case my Mother could hear.
Dan’s message now blinks up at me from the screen: “How are you… writing going well?” it asks benignly, and I ignore it for the time being and walk into the kitchen to brew some much-needed coffee. I’m not a man-eater, I think, and I’m not even beautiful… just remotely cute, in an annoying, American-as-apple-pie sort of way. I treasure my male friends, I’m okay with my female place in the world, and I feel like—at almost thirty—I may finally be getting the hang of it all.
I tell myself this now as I fiddle with the ancient coffee-maker, because I’m quite certain with the way my time in Montana has been going so far—wide-open vistas, startling discoveries, new friends, sublime reflection, and being hit on by a babe of a cowboy—God is definitely getting a kick out of me. And that’s alright, because I can take a joke.
* * *
Whenever I travel, or spend a fair amount of time in another place, I always seem to seek the South. When I lived in Alaska with my aunt the summer after my freshman year in college, I found in some odd way, the Chugach Mountains that rim the eastern edge of Anchorage reminded me of the Blue Ridge—never mind they’re black, craggy and snow-capped, infinitely steeper, and born in a much younger geolithic age. But the fact that they seem to guard the city and the coastline, protecting them like a line of benevolent kings standing shoulder to shoulder against the wild, made me feel as if I knew those strange mountains, and felt safe in their shadow.
When I traveled with a school group to Chicago the autumn of my senior year at Clemson University, I managed to sit next to a dreadlocked African-American man on the “L” whose entire family was from and still lived in Andrews, South Carolina. I spent the twenty minute trip as the train zipped in a flash of neon light through the city listening to him reminisce about summer trips to his grandparents’ house, how he spent hours hanging over the edge of a dock on the Black River Swamp, waiting to catch the scaly eye of a ten-foot-long alligator his granddaddy called “Satan.” And even as a graduate student, while traversing the labyrinthine, medieval streets of Florence, Italy, I couldn’t seem to escape the South. I’d catch a glimpse of the mist-green Appenines in the distance and think on the foothills of home, wondering if the Florentines felt the same way about their mountains as I did about mine.
In Scotland, while traveling with my husband this past March, we met the concierge of an eighteenth-century Highland Inn obsessed with the Old South. He’d been disappointed, the Scotsman said, when neither my husband nor I was possessed of the thick drawl he’d heard in the movies. We stayed up for hours with the man, sitting by a blazing coal fire in a well-appointed room decorated with rich red plaids, mounted stag antlers and two hundred and fifty year-old wood and leather furniture, drinking whiskey we really couldn’t afford and debating the sometimes fickle differences between stereotype and reality.
And here, in Montana, I’ve found these stoic Westerners can’t help but remind me of so many Southerners, especially those who’ve chosen to eke out a rural life in the midst of a rare sort of sparseness. In North Carolina, where I live, the mountains are ancient and dense, and in a heartbeat the trees—rampant, lush, and towering—can close in on you, blocking out light. Here, in high desert, fir and pine are thick on the steep mountainsides but spare on the rolling yellow hills, and even when you’re on a trail you can still see for miles out onto snow-capped horizon. I’ve yet to feel I could get lost hiking here, even though I know it’s possible, for this is certainly wilderness—and this specific wilderness comes complete with grizzlies and mountain lions, the sort of predators that haven’t ruled in the Appalachians for more than two hundred years.
Yet there’s still a distinct sense of amity I feel for this part of Montana. Faulkner or Miss Eudora would acquaint it, I’m sure, with a connection to place, to both the Southerner’s and the Westerner’s attachment to the land and everything that link historically represents. But all I can say is that I feel the bond—that tie between one former frontier, mountain region and another—in some warm place in my bones: a place that keeps me whole and happy, even as I am pained by pangs of loneliness, and nights when I lie in bed absolutely and desperately aware I’m almost an entire country away from my husband and my dog.
And when the middle-aged cowboy in line behind me at the Albertson’s in Butte—tall and broad-shouldered, with a worn Stetson on his head and a burgeoning paunch poised over a belt buckle the size of a small frying pan—grins and tells me that snow in Montana this time of year “may be early, but it ain’t strange,” I can’t help but think of the men I’ve known back in the Carolinas: friendly and strong, a little weathered by time and the land but possessed of a rugged chivalry that insists they help a wayward young woman make it safely home.
Both of them—the Westerner and the Southerner—will likely hit the road in a mud-caked, burly truck, and ride into the sort of sunset that stops us all in our tracks, makes us dream of more.
K. S. Crawford is a native South Carolinian who lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A former newspaper reporter, college professor, and camp counselor, Crawford earned her BA in English and Speech & Communications Studies from Clemson University, and her MA in English from the University of Charleston. In 2007, she received a full fellowship by the Montana Artists’ Refuge, where she was an October Writer-in-Residence. She was awarded a 2007-2008 North Carolina Arts Award by the North Carolina Arts Council; the award consisted of a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center, where she spent February 2008 as a writing resident. Her poems have placed and have been published in contests in literary journals in the southeast. Crawford’s first novel, Unto the Hills, was awarded First Place in the historical fiction category of the 2007 Paul Gillette Novel Contest, given by the Pikes Peak Writers Conference; it was also awarded honorable mention in the 2007 Florida First Coast Writers Contest. Her literary agent is currently seeking a publisher.