“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
I’ve been feeling somewhat nostalgic lately, probably with good reason. My daughter will be graduating from elementary school in a few weeks and we just marked the 10th anniversary of our move from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Things change, and the passage of time gets marked by startled remembrances. These landmarks or time marks can undoubtedly make a person reflective, but it’s what I was doing this time 20 years that has been floating back to me even more. Twenty years ago, in the spring of 1993, I was living in Missoula, Montana at the Village Red Lion on Madison Street, in a standard 2-queen bed room with a view of the Bitteroot River and the University of Montana campus on the opposite bank. I think back on my sojourn in Montana the way some might look back on a love affair from their youth – wistfully, fondly and perhaps a tinge of regret. My time there was, for me, a love affair, that’s for sure.
I lived in Missoula at the Village Red Lion on and off for about four months. (It’s no longer a Village Red Lion. It became a Doubletree, I heard.) As I said, I was in a river-view room for almost all of that time, though the front desk staff apologetically moved our party across the hall for a few days around commencement weekend, because those river view rooms had been booked for graduation at least a year in advance and we had never really expected to be there that long when we set out from LA at the beginning of March.
This was a business trip for my boss and we expected to be there perhaps 3 or 4 weeks. It became extended, but I was never sure just how long we’d be there or when I’d get the orders to pack up and bug out. When I first arrived, there was snow on the ground. By the time I left for good in early July, I had experienced the beauty of the place for a bit of winter and summer and across a full spring.
I also experienced a more gracious pace of life. I was charmed by the fact that people – rather shockingly – acknowledged you and said hello when they passed.
Who goes on extended business trips to Montana? Writers, that’s who. I was the writer’s assistant to a successful screenwriter and, fortunately, it seemed my general usefulness could be put to good use in what seemed so rustic a place where we weren’t quite sure what we’d find there. My boss was set to adapt a novel of the now late Jim Crumley, the Missoula resident author of a successful series of mysteries set in a fictional Missoula. We would meet Jim and a cadre of other wonderful novelists, according to the producer who was a native Montanan and promoter of the area. At the time I was told by her and others that there were more novelists living in Montana than any other state in the country. Low cost of living, an inspiring ‘Big Sky’ landscape and good university writing programs made it all very attractive and do-able.
While I was there my day-to-day duties weren’t too overwhelming, but I could see why it made sense to bring me along. I organized and arranged the move of the office things and set everything up in the new location. I would also be on hand to re-type any script pages, inputting them into the computer. He still typed on an IBM Selectric, and the first model of the Selectric at that. It didn’t have a correction key. He would just backspace and make xx’s over lines or speeches that needed changing. I would transfer his yellow typewritten pages (yellow cut down on glare and so that’s what we kept in supply) to a script formatting program. Considered portable in those days, we would now call my computer luggable. Remember this model of the early Mac laptops? The monochrome screen, the track ball mouse. The hard shelled floppy disks?
My days were mostly free. I got into the habit of getting up and out at 7:30 or 8:00 to take an hour walk before breakfast. My boss, if he was being productive, did most of his writing late at night and he would either phone me to come up and get the pages mid-morning or have someone slip them under my door. It’s lucky that I was already a confirmed writer by temperament, or all the solitude of living out of a hotel room with limited human interaction might have made me unhappy and frustrated. On the contrary, I was thrilled. I could putter, write, explore the area and since my meals could be expensed and reimbursed, I was keeping more of my wages while we stayed there. This was the life!
Missoula restaurants were not too pricey as it was, and my expenses for meals only dropped lower when I tired of the hotel food and got my meals downtown. We did all have dinner together occasionally and I made a friend who worked at the hotel who I would go out for burgers at The Press Club (a dive bar with great burgers) for lunch now and then, but I mostly remember exploring the local places on my own, including occasionally borrowing the family’s SUV to drive to the Missoula airport to get the prime rib dinner for $7.95 once I discovered how great the airport coffee shop food was. Their berry cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream was a keeper too, as I recall.
Beef was pretty much the great thing to eat up there. It was a liberal university town and there was lots of hummus and sprouts to be found, but food-wise it was really the home of the All-American breakfast, chili, steaks or prime rib, and pie, glorious pie. Guy’s Lolo Creek Steak House just across the state line in Idaho was a landmark. I only got there once but I had the 20 oz. t-bone. It was epic. As I did a little exploratory scanning of the web to see if some of the places I frequented back then are still there, Guy’s is one of the few places that remain and it is still an institution, apparently. Wordens, downtown, a deli that was a mainstay and particularly noted for its muffaletta sandwich is still there.
The first time I got to use the SUV on a weekend, I drove 30 or 40 minutes to go across the state line into Idaho. This seemed like a romantic thing to do. Road trips involving crossing state lines, especially states one never thought one would ever, ever get to are the best kind. The snow was falling and blanketing everything that already looked pristine. It seemed like a truly remote spot that you discovered for yourself. You have to watch that feeling in that region of the country. For when you have it, you are sure to soon see the marker telling you that Lewis & Clark got there before you. They’d already stood where you’re standing right now, by yourself in the snow. Been there and done that. Unforgettable.
I was also reading the best of the regional literature, courtesy of a reading list from a friend of the family who lived in Bozeman and lived a literary life herself. Since several of the books were oral histories of Native Americans from the area, I got a good start at an education in a new genre. Based on reading the oral histories of Pretty Shield and Plenty Coups, I gave myself – a private joke with me – the tribal name “Eats by Herself.” I never minded going into restaurants alone, then or now; but I did note that in Missoula a young woman in her twenties showing up at a restaurant to eat alone – not married with kids already – was something of an oddity. But they got used to it.
By May, halfway through what would be my four months there, I was entrenched in a pattern of life that I loved in a place that I loved. I was either typing my boss’ pages or working on my own script or exploring the area. We all loved Missoula. My boss’ best friend loved it to the degree that he sold his home in California and bought a place in town during the time that we were there. I later contemplated moving there too. I applied and was accepted into the University of Montana’s Grad School to study History, the Western History that had fascinated me while there, but in the end I couldn’t let go of LA, city of the fallen angels, to quote Joni Mitchell.
So the adaptation of the film never coalesced. The script that I wrote while I was up there – my first to make it out from under the bed – didn’t sell or get made either; but it got me some nice encouraging notes from the Montana entourage and others. I made it back to Missoula a couple of years later for a vacation, but that was the last time I was there. I still hold it as a top of the wish list trip to share with my husband and daughter. I’d love to show them the town, the drive to Glacier Park via Flathead Lake, the view from the top of the M above the University and at least one meal at the coffee shop at the airport. I’d still like to show my dad Three Forks where the Jefferson and Madison and Gallatin rivers all converge to form the headwaters of the Missouri and stand there again in the middle of nowhere but feeling charged up by the link to history and beauty of the place.
I believe that love, when it really is love, changes a person – at least that’s how it has worked for me. And my sojourn in Missoula did ultimately change me. It got me to look more critically at the cheap and dumpy apartment on a dumpy block in West LA that I returned to when my time in Montana was over. It just wasn’t good enough any more, and I wasn’t going to accept it as my home. I started looking at ads and targeting a neighborhood in Venice – an area just off Abbott Kinney Blvd. and south of Venice Blvd. that I’d always coveted – and found a place and moved there a few months later. In this folksy part of Venice, people of the neighborhood walking around did acknowledge one another with nods and hellos. My little casita apartment did look down on an asphalt alley, but it had its own front porch where I could read and write in the sun, and no crazy neighbors who shouted at each other or left their TV’s on all night at full blast. I stayed in that place for 7 years and only left when it was time to take on the next big adventure – going from being “Eats by Herself” and a state of single-hood to signing on to my own Corps of Discovery with my husband Chris.
Post Montana, I made my living conditions back home conform to the style to which I had become accustomed: special and comfortable, personal and uniquely suited to me at that time and place. A great space to be a writer.