Stories from the Road: The Search for Narrative
After a vacation in Montana, I’ve returned home, a head full of unorganized thoughts and a vague sense that I’m on the right path again. For months, I’ve been languishing in a purgatory of writer impotence and flailing about for some sense of purpose.
We took the Amtrak train from St. Paul to Glacier National Park, staying in a century-old lodge with few amenities and scant Wi-fi. We paid for a view and a convenient walk from the train station. Following our arrival, we spent our days hiking and horseback riding and our evenings playing board games.
The Glacier Park Lodge is an attempt to hold onto and faintly mimic a complicated history of land and people. Displays of old photos, both in the lodge and at the railway station reflect a pride in that history. They didn’t tell the whole story.
Sometimes I get told that I have a negative perspective, but I have learned to deflect this purported insult. It intends to shut me up, but nearly always fails. This trip reminded me of one the reasons I’m a writer. I always have questions and I’m always in search of a true narrative.
I couldn’t look at photos of railway executives and Blackfoot Indians and not wonder about the dynamics of those relationships. There were pictures of Indians performing ceremonies on the lodge’s lawn for upper-middle class white families in the 1920s. Not a half century earlier, the US Army, led by a drunken major, killed 173 Blackfoot women, children and elderly men in the worst Indian massacre in Montana history, about 70 miles away.
This idea that we should just embrace the positive rankles me. It seems endemic to the contemptuous schooling of conquering nations. Human history is populated by millions of stories and many of them are not happy ones. It is sometimes said, to pompously quote Churchill, that “History is written by the victors.” I grew up with those magical history books of American history and was disappointed to see in my daughter’s lessons, that not much has changed, except a sprinkling in of a few minority figures.
While on vacation, I finished reading Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer. The novel is about a Kikuyu family decimated by the attempts to overthrow Britain’s colonial rule and regain native lands in the 1960s. The hope we humans cling to, sometimes blinds us to the reality, both as victims and perpetrators of atrocity. I was struck by these sentences from the book: “He would reduce everything to his will. That was the settler’s way.”
It isn’t white guilt or a need to revel in misery that appeals. It is painting a whole picture. It is avoiding simplistic thinking of good and evil. It’s recognizing the immense suffering expansionism, colonialism and war can cause. It’s understanding that human relations are complex, mired in personal ambition, revenge, fear, greed, as well as noble intention and bravery.
In the railway station, a native American man bent down looking at the photos on display. I watched him, this giant covered in tattoos. Part of me expected him to rise up, angry and disgusted. Instead, he said quietly to the older woman next to him, “They took down his picture. See? They put that one up instead.” Oh, how I wanted to ask him so many questions, but the softness and sadness in his voice prevented me from intruding. The story began writing itself.
As I watched the North Dakota and Montana plains roll by from the train window, I was reminded of my own story. I remember traveling as a kid, watching the endless miles slide by from the backseat of a Buick. My eyes would follow the power lines as they rose and fell. I’d rest my head against the window, drifting off to sleep with the comforting thump-thump of the road beneath us.
I was a born observer. And every observation is only a few minutes from a surrounding narrative, my mind filling in the details. I often go to sleep in the middle of a story, which may explain why the ending of my novel eludes me.
Being an observer means that the natural world is a feast. Initially, I was disappointed at Glacier. It’s early in the season, the lake waters are cold, flowers aren’t in full bloom and the animal youngsters have yet to be born. I felt this hunger, getting up at the crack of dawn with my binoculars, searching for birds or deer, anything to fill the landscape’s narrative.
I waited and I searched. Bear spottings are down this year, one of the guides told us. Another swore he’d seen several on the bank of Two Medicine Lake. Instead, we were discovered by very insistent and entertaining Columbian ground squirrels at a picnic table by the lake. They knew their audience.
On the second day of early morning watching, I was rewarded with a couple of Black-billed Magpies who, despite being members of the crow family, were not happy with the crows that came near their nest. I got a version of an aerial show, magpies v. crows. I’m happy to say the magpies won and I watched for them each morning.
I looked everywhere for stories and I found them. So often we get mired in the day-to-day that we forget our nature. Mine is that of an observer and storyteller. It’s a lovely thing to go away on vacation and to come back to one’s self.