World of Hurt
Down the Missouri through a theme park of utter human failure. By Bill Vaughn
ALTHOUGH I SUFFER from the heartbreak of hydrozoophobia, one July I took a four‑day canoe trip down a solemn and hallucinatory stretch of the Missouri Breaks because Group promised that the vodka would not be rationed, I could get off the water to hit golf balls whenever I wanted, and no one would be allowed to sing around the fire at night.
These good citizens, who wouldn’t dare allow brown glass to touch green on recycling day, thought nothing of standing in the rain to drive golf balls into a river all day. But such is the grip this hypnotic place can put on your mind. Our first tournament, in which we chipped balls from a sandstone bluff at an orange tent poking from the pale green of a sagebrush terrace, was won by a tree surgeon who had never touched a golf club before.
I expected to be dirty and uncomfortable—that’s the central lesson about the outdoors I learned from four summers as a Boy Scout at the paramilitary Camp Napi on the Blackfeet Reservation next to Glacier Park. While I understand that there are some who enjoy this sort of open‑air squalor, for my kind the end of camping is the whole point of camping. Still, the mix of people was right. And I anticipated that a long, soporific glide on the current might be just what the doctor ordered. What I wasn’t prepared for was the thrill that overcame me halfway through the Breaks when I realized that it wasn’t just a little wilderness golf we were having here, but a transcendental theme park ride through a panorama of utter human collapse.
This theme park is, of course, The World of Hurt.
It starts at Fort Benton in the heart what had belonged to the Blackfeet Nation. From here downstream to the first deeps of what would become the Fort Peck Reservoir, the river once swarmed with wolfers, buffalo hunters, miners, fugitives, desperadoes, freebooters and river dawgs of every hue. All of them smelled bad and all of them were certain that with killer heavy‑weights such as themselves in the ring it would only be a matter of time before this particular wilderness was flat on the canvas looking for its teeth. When the cattlemen showed up, then the homesteaders—those rookie farmers lured by the railroads and chambers of commerce with faked photos of wheat as high as an elephant’s eye—it seemed that the rough trade might be right. But the railroads put an end to the steamboats, and Nature, that unbeaten counter‑puncher, put an end to the homesteaders.
My great-grandfather, old Tom Moran, who was prospecting for gold in the Highwood Mountains nearby, went over to check out the scene in the Breaks and recognized right off the futility of trying to wrest a living from ground that emanated such a strong spiritual antipathy to Irish Catholics—not to mention Indians, Jewish merchants and all other men as well. He hightailed up the Mullan Road to richer turf in the Sun River country, where he raised grain for the stage coach stops, and sucked up to the Jesuits at St. Peter’s Mission, as if they could save him.
On our second afternoon the canoes turned slow, aimless circles around each other in a bleaching sun while we drifted from left to right across America. It was story hour. We had a history of the river in a three‑ring binder that the Bureau of Land Management loans out, and we were taking turns reading to each other about the places that we pass.
In the sagebrush terraces 48 miles downriver from Ft. Benton a Norwegian named John Isaacson began scratching out a homestead with his wife and two sons in 1901. The younger boy was too puny to farm, so father set him upon the task of reforesting the banks with cottonwoods. Both sides of the river had been nearly stripped of these messy trees a generation before by the wood hawks, who cut them for sale to the steamboat companies as engine fodder. The boy carried a bucket of water from the river to each sapling every day, a Tiny Tim act of faith that was rewarded in 1908 when Hauser Dam broke. The Isaacsons lost everything to the flood except a team and wagon, a saddle horse, and one red rooster.
In 1914, during the peak of the homestead boom, an Iowan named William Bridgeford broke 10 acres of sod at mile 62, planting it to rye and potatoes. The rye was a bust and he had to cut what did grow for hay, but he managed to supply his wife and two children with 100 bushels of taters. The next year he broke 12 more acres and planted the whole 22 acres to oats. Hail shredded the entire crop. In 1916 he planted 42 acres to wheat, which promptly froze. He replanted the fields to oats and rye, and threshed 50 bushels of each before giving up and cutting the rest of this disaster for hay. On today’s market his grain, which would acccount for most of his family’s cash, would be worth about $300.
Archie Sexton, Bridgeford’s neighbor a mile downriver, sowed 10 acres of wheat and oats in 1916. All of it was ruined by hail.
In 1920 Lester Sluggett settled on land at mile 81, built a tarpaper shack 12 by 24 feet and a mile of three‑wire fence. Two weeks after these efforts he simply walked away. He resurfaced three years later at the Land Office in Havre, where he quit all claims. “The land is not very much good,” he wrote, “and I found that you could not get in and out of the place, as any road built to the place would wash right out with the first rain or snow melt.”
I tried to put a face on Lester Sluggett one morning as I made my way in a downpour across a flowering bench to do some business in a skinny ravine. In 1924 Lester filed on another homestead, this one at mile 61. By now he had a wife and two daughters. He built two small shacks (who stayed where?), a chicken coop, a barn measuring 18 by 20 feet, a reservoir, a well and four miles of fence. He also broke 80 acres of sod. He was 24 years old—if nothing else you have to admire his attention span. In 1929 he harvested 300 bushels of wheat from these cultivated acres, a miserable crop by today’s standards, which would count as a disappointment any 80 dryland acres that yielded less than ten times that much. But Lester’s harvest was bountiful compared to what happened in the Depression years of 1930, 1931 and 1933, when drought withered every stalk. The sole remnant of his stamina is a desiccated cottonwood foundation.
Suddenly, while I squatted there in my shiny yellow slicker, wondering what was in the minds of people who thought they could keep their sanity living on the stingy banks of the river they called The Misery, a mudball the size of a cantaloupe tumbled slowly around a bend in the flute on a rising ashy gruel and stopped at my feet. It had picked up bits of things along the way—sticks, feathers, red stones, the shells of beetles, shreds of wheatgrass, a rattlesnake’s rattle. Its fleshy blue clay looked unwholesome; I thought of grim medical reports about tumors gone amuck that grew teeth and toenails inside somebody’s belly.
Then it slammed into me, a mean little wall of water two feet high that would have sent me tumbling bare‑assed down the slope for all the women in camp to see if I hadn’t grabbed onto a root and pulled myself out of harm’s way. Still, this wasn’t much of a close call compared to what the homesteaders endured. In fact, the only mishap that fell on our whole trip was an ear infection caused when a mother of two clapped a blueberry cheesecake upside the head of her brother‑in‑law, who had passed one click too far on the rag‑o‑meter about a camp dinner of hers that just went south.
In 1922 at mile 70 George Dimitroff built the usual shacks and fences and sowed spring wheat on 10 acres of broken sod. Grasshoppers ate everything.
Mike Micklus began improving 315 acres in 1916 at mile 73, but was interrupted by World War I. After the service he returned with a bride and went back to work. In 1920 he was granted “patent” to the land but walked away from it for unrecorded reasons soon after and fled to Minnesota.
And on and on.
It’s not like people didn’t try. At mile 57 is a house built of tight sandstone blocks hand‑quarried from walls the river cut through. The cornerstones are recessed along the edges to make the joints stand out, and there are wedges of stone forming arches over the windows, whose sills were cut from one solid rock notched to make it appear as if there were three. This little jewel was fabricated sometime in the late 19th Century by a mason turned rustler named Jack Munro, who made his main living stealing horses and turning them onto the open prairies. They say he banked hundreds of horses up there and when he needed cash he just “rustled” up a bunch and drove them across the Territory to Miles City, where the money was.
One afternoon I climbed a bluff to scout places where we could set up the day’s pitch‑and‑drive contests, while Group debated which camping spot was best—the one separated from the canoes by a beach of calf‑deep gumbo, or the one infested with mosquitoes so big they stand flat‑footed and fuck ringneck pheasants. I came across a terrace where the hand of man, as James Joyce said, never set foot. And in this terrace I found one perfect square of prairie. Here was a prickly pear, its translucent amber flower crowded with bees. And a vetch and a yucca and an Indian paintbrush and a wild snap dragon with hard white petals and a wild pea plant and tiny, stiff grasses that refused to touch each other and occupied exact places on the earth as if they were standing at attention awaiting new orders from whoever sent them here. What if it’s true, I wondered, bending down closer so I could see. What if every blade is numbered?
My professional jealousy was aroused now. Here was this flawless, complex creation that needed satellite TV and booze and tennis lessons not one bit. And then here was me. I was struck by its cruelty and inhumanity and considered blasting a divot from it with my three‑iron just to demonstrate who was boss. I understood then some of the anger and frustration that must have washed over our hapless sodbusters as they turned their backs on these ungiving shores and slunk away from all this free land. But in a darker reach of my soul I was delighted. After all, I enjoy a good fight as much as the next guy, and I’m always inspired by the failure of others.
Down below oozed the inscrutable Missouri. It seemed tranquil enough. Almost benign. But when I accidentally slipped into it one evening fetching sausage from a cooler in the canoe I felt this muddy oaf try to pull me away with a force that left me shaking. Maybe the aura from its fierce and mindless rush is the real reason nothing human ever lasted here.
Whatever, its permanent citizens could care less. Selfish, milk‑colored pelicans hang unconcerned on the saged canyon winds, which hiss across the ruined homesteads and their tilted fields gone to mustard. At dinner the diamondbacks slide into camp as if expecting something good made of deer mice put out for them to eat. And the nights are again full of animal sounds no animal should ever hear. [18 September 2006]
Copyright © 2006 Bill Vaughn