Montana wasn’t a state I ever gave much thought to until I found myself staring out the window of an Amtrak train at the seemingly unchanging scenery of big sky country. As the train rattled down the tracks I started to wonder if we were even moving—the scenery seemed to repeat itself every 30 seconds like the fake background behind a car in an old movie. It’s hard to explain it, but the miles upon miles of emptiness gave me a sense of reverse claustrophobia.
My family was moving from upstate New York to Portland, Ore. and my mom thought it would be a fun adventure to take Amtrak across the country. After spending the last two days in coach sans showers and surviving off of bad train food I was sure of two things: I hated Montana and I hated this move. When my mom had told me that April that we were going to move in the summer summer, I had envisioned moving closer to the city if not into NYC itself, but definitely not Portland, and definitely not this.
My negative impressions of Montana were reinforced during an absolutely monotonous drive through the state several years later, so much so that when I moved to Seattle I would look at people with suspicion who claimed to love vacationing there. I would look at them and think: “Why in the world would anyone go to beyond BFE for a vacation? Is sensory deprivation the goal?”
Karma and Montana didn’t appreciate my disparaging of Big Sky Country so they conspired to send me a girlfriend from Montana. Carrie was a brilliantly nerdy and funny girl who I find hard to picture in my mind’s eye without thinking of her laughing. She was one of those endearing contrasts between being serious and driven, yet fun loving and goofy. I once said that if we got trapped out on a desert island for 30 years it would be unlikely that we wouldn’t spend the entire time cracking up.
I wasn’t really exaggerating; she could make Oscar the grouch laugh.
When we first started dating and the subject of her home state and what I thought of it came up, in response she laughed and said:
“I’m going to get you to LOVE Montana.”
Six months later I was driving along I-90 to visit her family for a few days, along with her brother, her brother’s ex-girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend’s family. I remember dreading the trip and thinking: “her parents are cool, but the isolation is going to drive me crazy.”
I wouldn’t need to pretend.
Her parents were gracious hosts and a blast to hang out with; I daresay they were probably the most welcoming pair of parents I ever met. To this day I still chuckle over the fact that her father seemed to know everyone in the entire state and couldn’t walk 20 feet in Missoula without running into someone he knew. Her mom was one of those unintentionally funny people who missed out on her true calling of being a comedian; she would often imitate me with an exaggeratedly snooty British accent and say things like: “Maarkham is going to go home to his family and say: The Caaldwells have old furniture that smells funny.”
I’m not sure where she got the accent from since I don’t have an accent of any kind. I think she got it from the fact that my Dad went to Cambridge. Nor do I know how she got smelly furniture from “you have really cool antique furniture.”
Beyond that I had a great time just walking around town and taking in the aspects of the town that were simultaneously modern and reminiscent of an old west town, eating burgers at the famous “Mo Club,” barbecuing with her family, hiking in the local parks, checking out the local restaurants and playing beer pong with the neighbors. I even found an amazing record store where I was able to buy some obscure vinyl and CDs. In fact, the longer I stayed there the more the town reminded me of the small college town I had left behind when my family moved.
Carrie would later dub our time in Montana, “the most wholesome family vacation ever,” and had a great time teasing me about it: “You love Montana now, haha.”
A couple of months later on the day after Thanksgiving, I was at “Grizzly Stadium” to watch the University of Montana take on Texas State in the FCS/Div I-AA Football Playoffs, Grizzly hat firmly on my head.
Giddy in the aftermath of Montana’s 31-13 victory over Texas State we decided to go bar-hopping that night, with some of her friends from high school. Missoula was a college town after all, the perfect place to get one’s “drank on.”
Her friend Joe met a girl he liked at one of the bars, so most of the rest of the night was spent going from place to place so he could run into her again. [Author's note: this nonsense is not necessary in this day and age, just get the person's digits, text them, and then hang out with them later. It's 2012, not 1994.]
Eventually we all ended up at a diner eating french fries, and right as we finished eating we suddenly realized that her brother was just, well, gone.
“Um, where is Troy?”
“Didn’t he just go to the bathroom?”
“I was just in the bathroom…”
We tried to call him on his cell phone but it went straight to voicemail. We went outside and after circling the area a few times with no results, we decided to go back to the car and so we could cover more ground. Carrie was starting to get upset as she was worried he had wandered off and gotten himself in trouble, or had gotten arrested for public drunkenness.
Driving around was a largely futile if not hilarious exercise because Carrie and Joe were too drunk to provide much navigation help, and I barely knew my way around town in daylight let alone at night. We didn’t have a plan; we were just randomly driving around downtown while Carrie periodically tried to contact her brother on his cellphone.
As we drove past the train station, I saw a cop car and a familiar figure: it was Troy.
“That’s Troy!” I said as I stopped the car.
“No, it’s not I would recognize my own brother…err, no, that is Troy. Oh my gosh Troy is going to jail! What do we do?!
I decided to respond to the call for heroism: “I’ll talk to the cop.”
As I approached the cop he was talking to a security guard while Troy was standing and facing the cop car with his head down.
As I approached the cop I thought: “Wait a second I’m a brotha in Montana, what the hell am I doing approaching a cop at three in the morning?”
The cop turned around as I got closer to him and the security guard, and as I looked at him I was sure Troy was going to jail. He looked like the tall, muscular “officer serious” you put on posters and billboards discouraging people from drunk driving or committing other crimes.
“Hi, um that’s my girlfriend’s brother and we’ve been looking for him all night, did he do something wrong?”
“Good evening sir; your friend triggered the alarm when he was trying to climb the fence,” he said. “He’s obviously intoxicated, but, I dunno, there seems to be something wrong with him. He keeps saying that he’s trying to go home to Seattle, and when I asked him for ID he gave me his debit and Safeway cards.”
Thinking fast I decided to use this information to my advantage. I leaned into the cop and spoke softly as if I didn’t want Troy to hear.
“Yeah, um, he’s a bit slow.”
I made my voice even quieter, “he’s slightly, um, retarded; and he wanders off sometimes, especially when he’s drunk. We were at her parent’s place in Missoula celebrating the Grizzlies win, and I think he had a few too many and just wandered off. I don’t even know how he got down here as they live on the other part of town closer to the freeway.”
“So where does he live? ”
“He grew up here, but he lives in Seattle now. My girlfriend and I were actually planning to go to my parent’s place for Thanksgiving, but we had to come here because Troy wanted to come here and he can’t travel alone.”
The cop’s features softened.
“That’s too bad; it was good of you to come out here to help him see his parents for the holidays.”
“Can I just take him home? I’m really sorry for the hassle but he didn’t mean any harm.”
“Okay, just take him home and keep him out of trouble,” he said. “After 9/11 a train station is not exactly a place you want to be seen breaking into, he could’ve gotten himself into some serious trouble.”
With that the cop handed me Troy’s debit and Safeway cards and told me to have a good night. I walked up to Troy who had started to sober up, and was standing with a rather embarrassed look on his face.
“Dude here are your cards back. The cop is letting you go, keep quiet and follow me back to the car.”
Troy looked at me with a quizzical look on his face, “Wait, I can just go?”
“Yeah; c’mon, let’s just get out of here.”
When we got back to the car no one said anything until we had driven off and were clearly out of sight of the cop car—it was as if we were worried he would hear us and arrest everyone.
Carrie spoke first.
“Markham, what happened?”
“A security guard caught him trying to climb the fence around the train station, and called the cops.”
“Oh my god! How did you get the police to let him go?”
“Um, well, I sort of told them that Troy was retarded.”
I then related my conversation with the cop, which lead Carrie and Joe to laugh hysterically, because the truth is: Troy is actually quite brilliant.
“What can I say? I’m like Winston Wolf, I solve problems.”
“Markham, that was awesome; you’re like your dad now: Winnie the Lawyer.”
“Please don’t ever call my Dad that, I don’t think he’d react well to it.” I affected a British accent: Markham, why is that daft Yankee girl calling me Winnie?!”
“Winston sounds too stuffy—Winnie is funnier, we’ve discussed this.”
“Well, my dad is rather stuffy.”
“That’s why it’s so funny.”
Our romantic relationship didn’t work out in the end, but we’ve remained good friends, and still talk on a fairly regularly basis. I even hung out with her parents a few times when they were visiting Seattle.
How could I not? They did after all play starring roles in both the most wholesome family vacation and my most hilarious law enforcement encounter ever.
The final post script to this is that I used to despise dogs before I met Carrie, and now she’s turned me (in cahoots with her French Bulldog) into a full-fledged dog person. Oh well, at least she wasn’t able to get me to like Kenny Chesney.
Markham Lee is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has spilled pixels on topics ranging from music, relationships, television, and those instances where life is stranger than fiction. He’s also working on a science fiction novel he hopes to finish before 2020. His work has been published by Nerve.com, The Frisky, Pop Matters, and Seeking Alpha. You can find more of his writing on his blog, and some of his more random, yet semi-intelligent thoughts on Twitter. Photo: Micah Sheldon