The Long and Winding Road By Bill Vaughn
When we moved to Dark Acres I realized that I'd been traveling in a circle.
IT'S PROBABLY TRUE , that you can’t go home again, but that didn’t stop me from trying. The instant I saw Dark Acres I knew I’d traveled in a circle. Here was an empire of knapweed-infested pastures, tangled cottonwood brakes, pine forest choked withdeadfall, and fetid sloughs filled with tires, brush, tractor parts and hideous rotten things. The place was bordered by a money-losing cattle ranch and the Clark Fork River, a troubled stream whose waters sparkled but were tainted with heavy metals leached from old copper mines a hundred miles upstream in Butte. And all around was the sort of squalid rural disarray where I spent my half-wild boyhood on the plains two hundred miles west of this wide mountain valley.
Although the real estate agent from Century 21 referred to the swamps as “wetlands” and offered the imperious raccoon we watched dog paddling in one as evidence of the “abundant wildlife” on the place she avoided eye contact. I already knew that Dark Acres languished in the shadow of Black Mountain all winter, and that river fogs blocked what sun there was from October to April, and that the linerboard mill upwind routinely smote the air with olfactory events reminiscent of my college fraternity house after a Sunday dinner of black beans and bratwurst.
I fell in love.
Mosquitoes were swirling through a warm June drizzle when I told the agent we’d take it. Kitty, my skinny blonde wife and business partner for ten years, looked alarmed, as if I might actually be serious about this. After all, the place had been on the market for months. The lawns had died. Tree limbs had captured flying garbage. Vines had crawled across the windows and were choking the shrubs flanking the front door.
Still, the price was right. At $69,000 for eleven acres, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a separate two-car garage, ridiculously right, even if the home was a cheap, modular fixer-upper full of spider webs. Plus, the water came from a well, a fireplace would have to supply the heat because it would bankrupt us to run the electric furnace, the sewage was piped into a private septic system that as I knew from my experiences as a kid could fail at any time, and we’d have to find some way of plowing the snow off the long driveway so we could get out in the winter.
But despite all this I knew, from the moment we stood next to the river after wading across the swamps and hiking along a game trail through the trees, that this was The Place. Looking upstream and then downstream along a sweeping mile-long bend dwarfed by the Bitterroot Mountains on the left bank and a dense canopy of forest on the right, we saw not one sign of the visually insubordinate mess Americans seem fated to make. Instead of 1990 the year could easily have been 1390. I figured that because there were so few people living on the margins of this state-owned floodplain neighbors wouldn’t be a hassle.
Events, however, would prove otherwise.
Like a lot of baby boomers who resisted the burdens of adulthood for as long as possible, Kitty and I had never been slaves to a mortgage. But when I turned forty, and Kitty thirty-six a month later, our biological clocks started telling us it was time to get some real estate.
A month earlier we’d been evicted from our cheap rented digs on a thousand-acre ranch on the outer edge of Missoula, a place I called Ranchito Maloso (the small, bad ranch). So we moved into the big downtown office we leased (not so cheap), while paying a ransom to stable our horses until we could find a place in the country of our own.
Every morning after the delivery trucks rattled us awake with their commerce on the street below, I stepped from the deck at the back of our suite, and took Radish for a walk on the roofs of the business district. Although he enjoyed startling people down on the sidewalks with his bark, for a stock dog this was no place to live.
Montana Power, the utility company that owned Ranchito Maloso, which had ceased being a working dairy farm twenty years before, had decided it was time to cash in on the population boom that was beginning to make Missoula one of the fastest growing cities in the West.
When riding around on one of our horses I sometimes pretended to be the current major dude in a long line of stern but fair Dons who were stewards of the land and gods to the campesinos, even though there were no campensinos and we, in fact, lived in a sagging old house formerly occupied by the hired hands. One of the premium pieces of real estate in Montana, Ranchito Maloso was the last big chunk of undeveloped land in the Valley of the Liberals, an affluent, Democratic enclave in a generally poor and self-destructive state that tends to vote for Republicans.
Another thing that made this parcel so valuable was its proximity to the Rattlesnake Recreation Area, which itself borders the roadless Eden of a national wilderness putting Missoula within walking distance of that primordial thing that’s been lost almost everywhere else in America. However, the pastures and washes and hillsides we’d ridden across for five years were now on the verge of development. Neither the Don nor the citizens of the Valley of the Liberals with their good intentions would be able to do anything to save it from the sub-dividers.
As it turned out, this pastoral cul-de-sac in the Valley was only a Ramada Inn on my psychic road trip that had begun, and would end, in the same place. My true destination was the glorious anarchy and freedom of my mostly momless and often dadless boyhood. If I could just find this geography again, which grew more luminous in my recollections the older I got, maybe I could shuck the anger and disappointment and wounded pride that seems to taint most adult lives like a fungus.
Although the rest of the Valley of the Liberals was filling with McMansions both mini and maxi, on Ranchito Maloso the jungle was taking over. Sway-backed plugs abandoned years before reached high into the feral orchards for the wormy apples that still ripened there. Unnaturally brazen coyotes lapped at the irrigation water leaking from the original pine conduits. In broad daylight they cried for our dogs to join them in a run. A flock of brilliant, vulgar ravens accompanied by what I judged to be chickadees or sparrows of either a pet or a slave nature flapped slowly from one side of the ranch to the other all day in a narcotic corvine dance I began to interpret as a sign of unpleasant things to come. Over the years the wind had compelled the barn to lean, and had stripped the soil from the rodeo grounds, exposing a hoof-punishing glacial scree.
But the place had been huge fun for a couple of years, joyous, actually, after we moved out of our rent house next to Bonner Park in the University district so we could live with the horses we had begun to collect. Although I had to give up my public tennis court in the park, there was another one a short bike ride down the road from the ranch. And the trail rides we took, summer and winter, were the highpoint of our days. There was so much empty space at Ranchito Maloso, and so much of that picturesque cowboy ruin that’s become a cliché of western photography—the aged barnwood and loading chutes and corrals—we could convince ourselves that we were living in the wild and woolly Montana of our great-grandfathers. [See "Being There First"]
In truth, I was relieved to see Ranchito Maloso fade in our rearview mirror. The place had begun to frazzle my nerves because I knew we’d have to leave it eventually, the traffic down its sole dirt road was becoming unbearable, and we simply had no control over the economics governing its fate. In a couple of years bare ten-acre lots would sell for $200,000 or more. Gentrification, of course, is now an old story in the West, a hand-wringing tale of woe whose plaint has become tedious.
As the day of our departure approached, neighbors whose unusual behavior once amused me now began to piss me off. There was a city councilman who liked to strip off his shirt and sit lotus-style in the wheatgrass, screaming in that primal way apparently intended to persuade even timid men that he must be kicked in the teeth.
Then there was a deranged white-haired Coventry gentleman who patrolled the fields with an oak walking stick and a hearty swagger, ferociously maintaining his English common law right to trespass as long as he wasn’t harming anything, while the coven of mismatched dogs that accompanied him terrorized the pasture horses and tore apart any small wild creature they could catch. And there was a jogger whose Afghans went berserk every evening in our corrals, snapping at our enraged horses while their mistress, wrapped in periwinkle Lycra, shrieked “Gretchen! Ambrosia! Courtney! Come!”
This spectacle was usually followed by the promenade of the wealthiest man in the state, a self-made gazillionnaire who strode by our shack flanked by two bodyguards and a lapdog so badly planned it resembled a muskrat that had fallen into a commercial dryer. This businessman, who bore an uncanny likeness to Muammar Qaddafi, had enraged the Valley by erecting a Berlin Wall of spruce planks on the long border between Ranchito Malosa and his estate to prevent people using the ranch road from peering across the creek into his nouveau riche domain. It would take time, and the hard lessons of land ownership, but I would eventually come to understand his point of view.
Stabled in a confusion of outbuildings near our shack were some expensive horses whose masters had moved beyond eccentric. There was an Appaloosa mare named Booster whose owner fancied himself a circus man. He stood on her back while she struggled to make circles, her peripheral vision scanning the vicinity for a something painful on which to deposit this witless drool.
There was a pair of Arabians owned by the Girl Shrinks—dour psychologists specializing in substance abuse and sex therapy who barked orders to the other equestrians at Ranchito Malosa as if we were patients confined to the grounds. To me, their horses seemed neurotic in formalized ways, as if they’d been trained according to the principles of Jung, Skinner, or k. d. lang.
I stopped smoking, and started drinking frozen vodka. One bright night during our last winter at Ranchito Maloso I started up an old Ford pickup named The Kenny, jammed the gearshift into compound, and headed off on the ranch road toward the wilderness. After a ways I opened the driver’s door and climbed back into the bed while The Kenny chugged along like a little tug. Then, as if I were making a command performance on Booster, I stepped up onto the roof and stood there, allowing the antiseptic mountain air and the astringent moonlight to treat my fungus.
I wondered if the Girl Shrinks could help.
I went over the edge the day I buried Slick. Fifteen years old, he’d been ailing for some time with the maladies old dogs suffer. His back legs had stopped working, for one thing. We moved him from place to place with the Dog-o-Matic, a belt that went around his belly and attached to a handle we could use to lift his butt off the floor.
Radish was then a puppy fond of sitting on Slick’s head, then latching onto his tongue and pulling it out to see how far it would go. I selfishly refused to part with my old pal, who had shared so much of my life, but eventually I could no longer endure the harsh glares of people walking by who saw this decrepit, rummy-eyed warrior panting in the yard.
His heart was so strong it took two heavy doses to still its beat. When Slick died at last, quietly in my arms after a long, last shuddering breath, the vet rose and, with deft consideration, walked quietly out the door. I had adopted Slick as a yearling when his addled mistress broke off with me and, as a final parry, threatened to put him in the pound. A mutt, a sort of Springer-Labrador cross, he was as true and fine as a dog can be. I began mourning him two weeks before he died. It is said that when you point, an intelligent dog will look where you’re pointing; a stupid one will look at your finger. Slick was a dog of such sweet disposition that when I pointed he looked in my face.
Kitty and I, both weeping, wrapped him in his favorite blue blanket, removed his collar so we’d have something of his to touch, and laid him to rest in the flower garden. Then I went to the freezer for some vodka.
At midnight I staggered to the garden with a flashlight to say goodbye again. When the light hit his grave it wasn’t marigolds I saw there but a flash of blue and the wide-eyed visage of old Slick himself. I screamed and fell back. Jesus H. Christ, I had buried him alive! I cried out for Kitty, who came running. As usual, she grasped the truth right away. “No, no, honey, it was Radish,” she soothed. “Look, see his claw marks in the dirt? Radish missed Slick, that’s all. Radish dug him up.”
When she managed to convince me that what she said was right, I let her put me to bed and deal with the grave. The next morning Slick was back in the earth, covered with rocks to keep our confused puppy at bay. After I could bring myself to think about him again I composed an obituary and sent it to his many friends, and to people whose dogs he had fought, such as the owners of Blue, a Great Dane whose tail Slick had broken at the tip. A friend called to remind me of the night Slick had gone missing after a late-night party at our Bonner Park house. Kitty and I had run outside calling for him, already regretting the $25 we’d have to pay the pound to set him free, when we heard howling in the alley. When we ran there we found that it was coming from the Dempsey Dumpster. Slick had managed to jump into the thing after climbing up a pile of discarded furniture, and had eaten his way through the offal to the bottom. Too bloated to move, he’d simply laid down and called for help.
Just before we moved into our office I was given an opportunity to make a final homage to Ranchito Maloso. I came upon a welter of garbage dumped in the borrow pit beside the ranch road. Judging by the contents—Big Mac containers, Coke cups and beer cans, cigarette butts and movie stubs—I guessed teenagers on a road trip. There was also a Domino’s Pizza carton on which was written the buyer’s name and address. I immediately packaged this trash in a big box along with some astoundingly rancid food products found while cleaning our fridge, addressed it, pasted on a magazine tear-sheet that said “You May Already Be A Winner,” and mailed it. The note I included began: “Dear Dick Head—Since everyone knows your momma eats kitty litter we figured she might go for some of this.”
Then I finished disassembling our corrals by ramming into the posts with the Kenny, loading the horse trailer with this timber and driving it to our rented storage garage near the airport. Since the corrals were the last major item left to pack, we turned our attention to buying our place in the country. For awhile everything in our price range was either too country—too far from Missoula and our clients—or either a rat hole no amount of sand could fill. And then, out driving one day, we stumbled across Dark Acres.
If we had waited even another season there wouldn’t have been anything left we could afford.
Dark Acres lies inside the big-dog-and-trailer belt that surrounds most towns of any size in the West. I call it the Squalor Zone—that unsavory sediment of semi-rural chaos wedged between the neighborhoods on the edge of the city limits, and the true country of cattle, sheep, wheat, timber and finally the wilderness.
The Mullan Road, which leads from downtown to Dark Acres, is marked first by paint, and later by blood. As you leave urban life behind the road kill on this old two-lane blacktop changes from the random impetuous squirrel to an accelerating slaughter of rodents, reptiles, house pets and finally to skunks, pheasants, deer and the occasional cow. Packs of collared dogs lope in the ditches on sex missions. One night I passed two bald eagles squabbling over a toy poodle, freshly whacked by just such a pack, or more probably, a car. Ragged cattle routinely escape their pastures and mill around on the pavement in their bovine thickness, forcing motorists to pull over and wait for the way to clear.
The smells change, too, as you travel this road to the Squalor Zone. Car exhaust and frying food and garbage rotting in the Dumpsters gives way to the fart smells of the linerboard mill blend mixed with powerful stenches from the Burn of the Day. Because this low-income precinct of trailers and shabby modular homes is far enough from town to make those who enforce the civilizing influences of zoning and health regs less than eager to drive out and do their duty, the denizens feel free to torch whatever they like, whenever they like. One day it might be the garbage pit behind the trailer, a discarded mattress, or a wrecked ’69 Bonneville. Another day all the underbrush. Or for the best pyrotechnics: a pile of used tires, which hiss and snap and send up fierce black funnels. For sheer stink, however, nothing can match a week’s supply of dirty Pampers smoldering in an oil barrel.
Most of the time the silence is so interstellar it lets you hear the course of your own blood through its tunnels. But sometimes Dark Acres can be as noisy as town. There’s the whine of chain saws as the residents put up their stove wood or “clear” their land for pasture. From the north comes the firecracker pop of the trap and skeet club. Since Dark Acres lies under one edge of the airport’s landing pattern, the rumble of very close passenger engines rattles us a dozen times a day.
And when we moved to Dark Acres an illegal shooting gallery across the river behind the first ridge of the Bitterroots issued a steady fusillade of small arms fire day and sometimes night. We’ve heard buffalo guns over there, and dynamite and clip after clip from assault rifles. We’ve seen tracers light up the night.
In and out of hunting season, however, it’s the gunplay on our own lane that still makes us jump. We’ve laid bets on whether a particular chevron of geese or pair of ducks will escape the Squalor Zone without drawing fire. The shotgun blasts and random cracks from .22s are commonplace enough to make me wonder: Do these people poach to live, or do they just like the noise?
In the beginning Radish flinched at every shot. But unlike his masters he never got used to this war zone bedlam. As for the horses, at first they just didn’t care. After being confined in small pens for weeks, the moment we led them from the trailer and unbuckled their halters they tossed their heads in astonishment. Then they a loped in a wide circle around their new pastures, bucking and snorting and farting, until, as if choreographed, they slid to a stop, and put their mouths to the grass.
When the thermometer hit 90 for the first time our first summer at Dark Acres Kitty and I grabbed our inner tubes and went off to the river with Radish.
In the middle of the Clark Fork lies a little piece of paradise I named Radish Island, forty or fifty uninhabited acres of purple willows, cottonwoods and wheatgrass the river constantly sculpts. When run-off in the spring floods this secret place only the tops of the willows stand above the rush, flapping in the current as if waving for help. As the flood recedes it leaves the island shiny with sand as scrubbed as anything on the Sea of Cortez.
We sat down in the cool water at the edge of a lagoon. The current here spun a languid whirlpool, which kept the fetch sticks I threw for Radish in play. Our legs frosted with sand, we felt as isolated from America as if we’d been put down on Mars. That is, until a Boeing shattered our sheltering sky, the roar of its engines startling birds into flight. Radish winced and ran to sit between us, where I calmed him with copious praise for his exceptional canine value.
Exploring the island after another swim we came across one of those animal murder mysteries that once occupied much of my imagination when I was a kid. There in the sand was the corpse of a black goat, and lying close by, the equally desiccated carcass of an owl. Radish sniffed them carefully and looked at me to see if they were okay to eat. What happened here? Had these beasts washed up on the island in separate events? Or were their deaths related? Had the owl attacked the goat? Or was it the other way around? But why would a goat attack an owl? I pulled Radish away from this tableau morte and we continued to the head of the island. Along the way we found three headless dolls, one of them tortured on the butt parts with what looked like a cigar, a four-hundred-foot span of heavy industrial cable, a huge rock so perfectly squared it looked as it had been quarried by a stone cutter, and four yellow rubber ducks.
I woke up late that night with a sunburn and went for aspirin. Floating on the hot, heavy air were the faint strains of a melody. Wide awake now, I went to the back door. The music was coming from the river. I got Radish, and set off to find out what was going on.
One of our upstream neighbors, living on the ridge above Radish Island, had moved into the Squalor Zone the month after we did. Although we’d never met them, but saw their place most everyday on our trail rides around the floodplain, we knew something about them from the manner of their arrival.
On the first day they graced their five acres with a trailer, of course. The second day there were two trailers. The third day two trailers, a propane tank and a doghouse. The fourth day two trailers, a doghouse, a propane tank and a corral with eight horses. The fifth day all this plus a dozen cars and trucks. On the sixth there were two trailers, a doghouse, a propane tank, a corral with eight horses, a dozen vehicles and a milk tanker stuck in the mud.
On the seventh day, I guess, they rested.
When I got to the river “In My Room” by the Beachboys was blaring from a boombox they’d set up in their "yard." I sat down, trying to extract the most out of what had been a short, stingy summer. I could see wavering shadows thrown against the trees by a bonfire. There was a lot of rowdy whooping as well, and the growl of a truck being senselessly gunned, over and over.
These were the same sights and sounds that had filled my summer nights as a kid. But when I caught the whiff of cottonwood smoke and then, from downstream, the fleeting perfume of a skunk I sat up with a start.
Among all those other summer nights, there had been one in particular, the year after my mother died, that I had commanded myself to memorize.
Nine years old, I had gone out in the dark, long after my kid sister and old man were asleep, to conceal myself on the bank of that other river, the Missouri, hiding in a favorite fort forged from a thicket of chokecherries at the mouth of Sand Coulee Creek, which ran through our shabby three-acre place a quarter mile away. It was after midnight, but I wasn’t ready for sleep. As I fed bits of driftwood into my fire, a little breeze wandered down the valley, bearing the faint odor of skunk. Across the deep and dangerous water an owl started up. And then the lonely cooing of a mourning dove. A bat soared by overhead, chasing bugs. The gurgle and sigh of current almost put me to sleep.
But when I heard the gathering sounds of swimming and heavy breathing, I rose to a crouch, ready to run. Before me suddenly, standing on the muddy beach, was a mule deer. She lowered her head to study my fire with enormous liquid eyes, and shook the river from her coat. Then she was gone.
The Clark Fork cuts west through the mountains instead of east through the plains. And unlike the Missouri, whose waters are murky and full of concealed threats, the Clark Fork is transparent. But everything else about this close and starless night felt just like home. The rush of déjà vu I’d experienced the first couple months after moving here was beginning to yield to actual memories, vignettes from my sad and ecstatic and overheated childhood.
Some of these images swarmed over me like a raptures. But some of them I’d spent decades trying to forget. •
Copyright © 2006 Bill Vaughn