"A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves."
A loud crunch from outside woke me up—an alarm in the silent snow-world outside the trailer door. I opened my eyes, but couldn't quite tell what the heck I was looking at through the breath-cloud above me. It was...a blobby icicle directly overhead—a curious stalactite caused by the frozen condensation of my overnight breath. The little trailer had become a walk-in freezer because apparently, someone had left the door open about a foot wide. The same someone let the propane for the heater run out, and also left the VW stuck up to it's front doors in the snowbank out front. The snow drifting in the door pointed like a white arrow to the perpetrator, who happened to be bundled up in my sleeping bag, and still wearing my clothes.
There I was—there we were—hung-over and snowed-in, in a trailer park just off the road that led from the Gallatin Canyon to Big Sky, Montana. Our answer to the call of the wild. When the older brothers left San Diego and headed to the silver-mine ski town of Park City, Utah, we younger brothers felt we had to push it a little farther.
Park City in the seventies was too safe, too familiar, and we didn't feel like hanging around for the exploitation boom to begin. Already the fur and turquoise crowd from Scottsdale were making their way via Santa Fe, seeping up into the Wasatch, wandering Main Street licking their chops. So Jimmy and I shook our brothers' hands and set sail for Montana, where no kid from San Diego had ever gone before. At least none that we'd ever heard of.
It was a long, eventful trip. That's a hazardous web of highways that crisscrosses the West out there from Wyoming to eastern Oregon, and down to the Arizona border. The cowboy trucker's Bermuda Triangle. Salt flats. Black ice. Nevada. Endless long stretches of road. Trickster spirits dancing past the car in the dark night. You always felt lucky to get where you were going, so when we finally turned up the road to Big Sky, and beheld majestic Lone Peak topping the end of the valley like the Paramount logo, we knew we'd reached at least some lower level of teen-aged legend. No San Diego boys had ever seen this, we thought.
We got jobs at Huntley Lodge, a brand-new resort built by Chet Huntley, half of the long-forgotten iconic NBC News anchor team. We skied all day, and in the evenings waited tables at banquets, playing the image-conscious conferees from Michigan or Minnesota one against the other for ever-bigger tips. I also set-up and bussed at The Yellow Mule—the least appetizing name for a restaurant ever. It was one of my jobs to build a fire in the huge dining room fireplace, and since I was always cold, and always a little angry back then, I built them as big and as hot as I could. Hot enough to render a couple four-tops absolutely un-sit-able. The silver and glassware would start to ping and shimmer—far too hot to touch. The golden light of the fire waved like a mirage around the tables in front of the hearth. Customers would start rubbing their thighs, and the back of their necks, and suddenly leap up clutching their napkins, back-pedaling away from the heat before they spontaneously combusted.
That'd git my boss about as ding-dang teed-off as a cowboy restaurant manager can git. And quite the cowboy he was, pointy-yoked shirts with pearly snap buttons, curly hats, and even scarves tied in such a way as to look a little too decorative for Montana. His name: GREG, was branded in the back of his tooled-leather belt. He walked bow-legged on purpose.
As it turned out, he was from San Diego, about two miles from where we'd grown up.
For some reason, a Montana State Trooper took us under his wing and had set us up in the little trailer park down the road to Bozeman. The crunch that awoke me that morning was that Trooper, delivering the bloody haunch of a road-kill deer by shoving it into the snow bank out front. He left things there for us stuck in the snow, like Boo Radley, with a hole in the snow, instead of the tree. Montana State Troopers can lead lonely lives.
Later in the day after we'd warmed and sobered up, we butchered the venison in the trailer's little bath tub, being careful not to touch the fixtures because of the live electric current that ran through the plumbing. A lot of things out there were not nice, or easy. Like the girls, who were hard to touch too. Like the incessant bitter cold. Like life. This wasn't Park City anymore, Dorothy.
There were rough hill-people from Karst Ranch, who lived almost entirely off the venizon they shot from their cabin windows with their 30-30s. Laconic cowboys and ill-tempered truckers we drank with at a big log roadhouse bar called Buck's T-4, the place where we'd acquired our hangovers and lost our driving skills the night before.
Rosy, the classic veteran waitress I worked with at The Mule, came in late with her husband—the largest man in Montana, who with predictable western irony was nicknamed Tiny. She was always laughing, while Tiny always seemed pissed off. A local asked us where we were from, and when we told him San Diego, he spit old chaw in a cup and said, "Well, I won't hold it aginst ya..." And and a man of his word, he didn't. The cowboy-truckers appreciated that we weren't (quite) hippies, that we worked hard, were good listeners—and that we seemed to hold our liquor well. That was important to them, up in that part of The Rockies, as it was to us too. We'd known when we went there that the legal drinking age in Montana was just nineteen. Jimmy was there already, and I was nearly drinking age upon arrival. So we managed without incident, and realized that in fact, we were real westerners too.
But brother, it was pee-freezin' cold that morning out in front of that trailer, rubbing my hands together hard, looking up at the Spanish Peaks like a row of dog's teeth reflecting the rising sun against that blue, big sky.
Be on the lookout for Tales of the Koko Lion, Memoirs of a Cartoon Mystic, coming your way someday soon(ish).
can be pre-ordered online. The first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available everywhere – but ask for it it at your local bookstore!