Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The weather weaver here on the high prairie has at hand a warp from the West Coast and a weft from Alaska and the Arctic. The shuttle is the jet stream. We’ve just experienced a several-day spate of cold rain that usually hits about now -- after a couple of weeks of summer weather in May while there are still classes -- just as the school kids get out. This is about the time that the major flood of 1964 hit here, with results like a mini-version of New Orleans. That is, three poorly maintained federal dams broke, sweeping down the rivers, killing more than thirty, and changing the hamlet of Heart Butte forever. (It was destroyed, rebuilt, connected to a paved road, and expanded into a housing project.)

I think what really happens annually is that the jet stream moves sideways from south to north until it reaches its summer location in Canada and when it moves over us, it brings along the coast weather but breaks up whatever inland high rests here. A commercial pilot who flies east/west would know, since they often piggy-back on that jet stream.

About this time of year in 1971, newly divorced, I moved from the little ranch on Two Medicine where I’d wintered, up to the resort town of East Glacier at the mouth of Marias Pass. A hulk of a two-story yellow house (much better than usual on the reservation) had stood empty there for several years and I proposed to rent it for $75. Further, the rent was not to be paid to the owner in money but in receipts equivalent to materials as I made repairs. My labor was free. In fact, it was therapeutic. My landlady (who now lives across the alley from me here in Valier) had grown up there and said she always liked the house because when the snow got so deep that you couldn’t see out the first floor, you could always go upstairs.

It was technically summer vacation. Nothing was hooked up except electricity and water. The wall behind the kitchen sink had a hole burned in it from a fire that started from an effort to thaw the pipes in winter, so my first chore was patching that and installing a new window. There were stovepipe chimneys so I got a little tin stove and I hooked up the old gas stove that had been there. That was enough heat to get me through the first fall, though I often read with my feet in the oven to keep them warm. Just before the first major blizzard hit, Joe Evans drove up from Browning to install a wall heater that equalled one month’s rent receipts.

But the first part of the summer was occupied with replacing the glass broken out of every window and with hardcore scrubbing. The house had been occupied by squatters. In the kitchen the floor was saturated with beer and grease, which fed an amazing assortment of fungus and mold. I pulled up four separate layers of ancient linoleum and spent a day searching out and lifting the tiny sharp tacks that had anchored them.

The most dubious problem was something nasty on the walls that some people claimed was human excrement. A bit of investigation showed me it was actually commodity peanut butter. A friend walked over to see how I was doing. She and her husband, a fellow teacher, were renovating an old mercantile store -- much older and mercifully pre-cleaned since an old lady had lived there with a small flock of chickens -- indoors. They had tools, skills and double the person-power of my project, so their achievements were far more definitive and impressive. She was a real cleaning demon, in contrast to my tolerance of anything not contagious or moving.

And she really wanted to see this “excrement” on my walls. While she peered at it, squawking that I might die of some terrible disease, I walked over and swiped a finger through the stuff. “I’m not afraid of shit!” I declared, and put my finger in my mouth. I thought she might faint. It was great.

Luckily, she wasn’t there when I opened an old styrofoam cooler that had been on a high shelf in the shed. You know the phrase, “great gray-green greasy gopher guts?” That’s what was in there -- except that it had deteriorated into goo. I smelled it for days afterwards even though I’d immediately resealed it and taken it out to the dump. (This was in the days that it was a real dump where we all went on Sunday morning and swapped discards, sometimes coming back with more than we took out.)

Through most of that June I kept warm through muscle power -- scrubbing, scraping, tugging. But the jet stream was bringing water for the grass and sometimes I just got too chilled and tired to keep it up. That’s when I resorted to the Big Hotel.

The big East Glacier Hotel is one of those railroad hotels, built in Adirondack Style but on a scale far beyond any Eastern lodge. Since the train went through at the foot of the ridge on which it was built, huge Douglas fir logs were brought in to create a three-story central atrium with rooms all around balcony hallways. Of course there were huge fireplaces with crackling logs, as well as a window-lined hallway supplied with writing desks. I spent my afternoons there, watching tourists indignantly shaking off rain.

On the first few mornings in my new house I woke up with small red itchy bites. The second time this happened, I quickly snatched my bedding off, threw it on the floor and jumped on it. Out ran a cluster of small black predatory spiders, the kind that jump and bite rather than make webs. I overcame my fear of poisons enough to insect-proof the room and ran the bedding through the village laundromat. No more problem.

Except that I kept dreaming that a grizzly was trying to break in. This was not entirely unwarranted, since bears walk through East Glacier all the time. In fact, the citizens have learned that it’s best not to have a leash law because big dogs help discourage bears, besides keeping the stray cows out of your petunias. In the end I realized that the Palomino Bar cleaned up about 3AM and came out to dump the empty bottles in a great crashing and splintering. That’s what my sleeping mind made into a grizzly attack.

On the other hand, I was lying in bed one morning contemplating a cluster of really big nails driven above my bed and reflecting on how heavy a picture must have been hung there. Maybe a mirror? Then it dawned on me. One of the last legitimate occupants of the house had been Richard Little Dog and family. He was the man who had transferred his Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle to Bob and I. This was where the Bundle had hung when he lived here. Technically, I was still a Keeper, since a white man’s divorce had no relevance to ancient tribal customs and Bob had no intention of transferring it to anyone else.

I could not be sleeping in a safer place. Let it rain and blow and storm and snow. All the troubles were so much peanut butter. Rain for the grass. Last night I thought about all this as I took my evening walk under a clearing sky. The town was quiet as the surrounding prairie, peaceful quiet -- safe quiet.


dighdown said...

Three members of my family were lost in the 1964 flood. Thanks for all of your posts, I always enjoy reading them.

Pat Onion said...

very moving, Mary--you make me feel the place--both the house and the area, very haunted; I remember your showing us the house in Glacier from the outside--it looked innocuous enough at the time!