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.

canstockphoto4003992We 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.

canstockphoto25706984I 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.

canstockphoto15014062On 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.

44 Comments on “Stories from the Road: The Search for Narrative

  1. Being somewhat inclined to the observation side myself, I wholeheartedly agree that the natural world is a feast – disappointments and all!

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    • I think there might be something slightly wrong with my disappointment in not seeing a bear while hiking. There was a lot of talk from other hikers we ran into, who were all geared up with bear spray. We, on the other hand, counted on our 11 year old to make plenty of noise. It apparently worked, as the high point (besides the views) was the discovery of a pile of elk scat.

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  2. I love how you tell a story! As I have said before, I don’t always comment but I read all of your posts and spend some time afterwards considering what you share. This was so clear, I could have been standing beside you. ” 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. “

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      • I have started working on it, but I’m cautious about writing characters from different cultures. I always get swallowed up in research. Still, I prefer doing that than making assumptions.

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        • Yeah, I talked about that in my last post, as you may have seen. I would have to write it from an observer’s perspective. But whatever you do with it, I hope to read… 🙂

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    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I really don’t know what to make of the scene. There are so many assumptions to be made and discarded. I’ve been thinking a lot about that simple exchange. A little while later, while waiting for a delayed train, he combed and adeptly braided the older woman’s hair (she might have been his mother). So much to imagine from those brief glimpses!

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  3. Only a writer would pull out all these observations from a vacation in a national park. The post keeps us in the flow from hiking and boardgames to musings on history to magpies. Something for everyone. Nice!…I join you in wondering about the dynamics in the pictures. Ambition and wars thoughout history show it’s not only a white problem (though Europeans did go far out of their way invading other peoples’ turfs), but a human expansion issue. The history of all Empires, whether Asian, Arab, Turk, African or whatever show that an itch for expansion and dominance is part of human nature, whatever colour. And Churchill’s quote stands…

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Bea. I think it would be hard to observe so much and then not write it down.
      I love looking at old photographs and learning the history of a place, but know that whatever I’m seeing is only a piece of the larger puzzle. What’s wonderful about the internet is that no stone seems left unturned when it comes to finding out information.
      As far as the quote by Churchill, it seems less true in the face of all the emerging nonfiction literature. More people are telling their stories. The upside is that we do get a broader perspective. The downside is that there is so much to read and understand, that it can be overwhelming, once again making it easier to accept stories at face value.

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  4. How I missed you on this blog!

    Again, you are raising such issues, in only a few sentences. Again, it brings me to my own narrative. The French in Canada, conquered by the British, given away by the French monarchy, my friend telling me that Quebec is holding a grudge towards humanity and that we should get over it. It has been 350 years ago!?! And the treatment of our First Nations women, disappearing to the hands of white men.

    The power of your blog bringing this all to the forefront.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

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    • Thank you for the kind words. If there’s anything history has taught us, it’s that generations create long memories. It’s figuring out how to move forward from all of those memories without dictating to the wronged groups how that should be done.
      For those of us with any degree of advantage, it is on us to listen and to learn. At some point, one hopes that we can work together to create a better future and to not repeat history.

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  5. Beautiful photos Michelle. Not surprised you’re inspired. You are so right. There are potential stories all around us. All we have to do is open ourselves up to them, to see them, to feel them and to allow ourselves to be the conduit that brings them to life.

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    • Thanks, Fransi – although these aren’t the photos I took. Mine usually involve some degree of blurriness and headless people, as well as an occasional thumb. It was beautiful there, though and I really enjoyed mornings with coffee, a book and binoculars sitting on the outside deck. It did rejuvenate me quite a bit!

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  6. I found the moment with the image of modern native Americans juxtaposed against the history of their people quite moving. I too want to know the story behind the moved photograph. That it is a thing I will not know will eat at me.

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    • It’s amazing that it took months to dry out that well and only a few days to refill it. Now, the trick is to find things on the way that keep it from happening again. But time away was indeed a good start. Thanks, Sandy.

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      • They are such attractive and interesting birds. I’m a little obsessed with them, although we don’t have them here in Arizona.

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        • We supposedly have them in the eastern part of Minnesota, but I’d never seen one before. Naturally, I had to rush down to the tourist shop and buy every nature guide possible to figure it out (it’s what you do without wi-fi!).

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        • LOL. I spent a whole day when we were in Banff chasing magpies in the lilacs with my videocamera years ago. Hubby and the kids were white water rafting or something like that, and I was geeking it up.

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  7. Reblogged this on melanielynngriffin and commented:
    I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to share a fellow blogger’s post in its entirety. Michelle at the Green Study has long been one of my favorites, and her recent post is beautiful on so many levels. It’s a reflective piece about travel, the writer’s mind, stories, and what’s “true.” She has just visited Glacier National Park, where she pondered nature, true narrative, and the suffering caused by colonialism, expansionism, and war.

    It tracks for me right now because my church has been studying social and racial justice, and, like her, I’ve been “languishing in a purgatory of writer impotence and flailing about for some sense of purpose.”

    Anyway, I’m off to my place in New Hampshire in just a few hours, where I hope to get re-grounded in a vague sense of purpose and get some writing done. Enjoy Michelle’s piece!

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    • Congrats on your 200th post! I’ve so appreciated your perspective and what you’ve shared about your journey these last couple of years, as well as being able to commiserate with a fellow writer.

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  8. I took that same train a couple of years ago – I recall too that this was one trip where wildlife eluded me. That whole part of the country is steeped in the history of Native American oppression hidden just below the surface. I visited Fort Laramie, Wyoming a few years ago – it’s in the park system and they do their best to relate both sides in the content presented on the grounds – but it is clearly a frontier fort designed to protect white Americans traveling west.

    On our drive out I saw a really interesting bridge and stopped to take a shot. I had to hike down the river for a better vantage point – it was the Platte River. About 30 feet from the road there is a marker in the woods – the place where a cow was killed as it trampled the lodges of the Native Americans. This spot in the woods touched off reprisals and the eradication of the entire village – it was a spark that started a war and it started in this almost secret place in the woods. I thought about how odd it was that there were living histories and tours just up the road and no mention of this spot on the river where a whole generation was slaughtered over a cow.

    You can’t just see the positive and have any empathy or understanding of our history. We are more complex than that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow – thanks for sharing your story. With history, it always feels like there is more boiling under the surface, waiting to erupt. And sometimes it does. What concerns me most is that if we don’t acknowledge, teach and learn about all the stories, we make choices based on public relations output (e.g. textbooks, fictionalized movies).

      The Baker or Marias Massacre, which I was referring to in the post, came about through a tangled web of stolen horses and a long history of enmity between two men, one white and one Indian. When Owl Child murdered Malcom Clark, it set off a reprisal. Unfortunately, the 2nd cavalry major and a reputed drunk, Eugene Baker, misidentified the camp and his troops opened fire, murdering 173 people. 50 were children under the age of 12.

      In the age of information, we can no longer claim ignorance when horrors are perpetuated on populations, nor ignorance of our country’s complicity in those acts. While I have no idea how to repair or make reparations for past horrors, there is no excuse for ignorance or for repeating those same mistakes. We have a lot of healing and bridging work to do in this country.

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  9. I’m happy you came back to yourself, inspired. When I read this post I was reflecting on the fact that I’ve always thought of myself as an observer and story teller, although I seldom dare to delve into the people world. The natural world speaks to me…and when I observe it tells me the story. What a great post, Michelle. I want to read the story.

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    • Thanks, Helen. You do a terrific job of observing, interpreting and narrating your natural world. It’s always a pleasure to read your blog. I’ve been really thinking about that kind of writing. Over the years, reading Aldo Leopold, Gretel Ehrlich, Barry Lopez, John Muir and Edward Abbey, I’ve wished to do more nature writing and am currently trying to figure out if I can integrate more of that in my work-in-progress. I’m obviously still a writer-in-progress!

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  10. Glacier is a beautiful park. Loved your blackbill pic, just gorgeous.
    I agree 100% about looking at all of history and not just one point of view. Think we’d be better off if that was the norm and not the exception.

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    • Critical thinking is one of those skills that needs to really be promoted at home and in school. It requires that one see the breadth of history and not just points in time. Sometimes when I hear politicians or social commentators, I wonder how they have gotten as far as they have without those skills.

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