Author Archives: williamsimonsen

Song of the River

By William Simonsen

There is a place on the river above the lake where I always go to fish with flies. It is best in the fall when the water is low and the tourists have all left.

The way the current roils against the east bank at the mouth of the creek is magical. It bubbles and gurgles and talks and sings as the two waters meet and mix together.

It is not the best fishing on the river by any stretch. But it is the most peaceful.

As the trees begin changing color and the early mornings are brisk I find my pickup headed for this place. I’ve caught dozens of fish at this spot and turned every one loose. As I tell them I’ll be back to catch them again when they are bigger.

And sure enough, I catch bigger fish there every year.

I found the place a decade ago. Late in the summer. Autumn really.

I was recovering from horrible treatments for a horrible disease. I was sad and weak and lost. Undead, but not alive. I went to the river out of habit. Fishing with flies as the snow flies.

I never stop for the day until ice forms on my line and I can’t cast it.

Earlier I had stopped at a couple of places I knew and they no longer felt right, so I kept driving along watching the river.

It was an unmarked dirt road heading off toward the river. I followed it to a very small open area, then walked the remaining hundred or so feet to the bank.

This far upstream the river is small and gentle and alive with fish. Trees are close on the bank making casting a good trick. The current twists between the gravel bars. Small trout hide underneath overhanging banks, the big ones lie in deep holes below snags.

Fishing with flies, when done properly without paid guides who have phony western drawls and thousand dollar rods, is a pure sense of oneness with water. Flowing water. Free flowing western streams.

When I find the perfect casting, floating, retrieving rhythm, I forget that I am fishing. I forget I am standing in a river. I forget who I am supposed to be.

On certain days when I am lost in thought I’ll snap off a fly on a sloppy backcast. Uncaring I’ll continue to cast and retrieve my line without a fly. My world is calm. The fish can wait to be caught until the rhythm and song of the river inside my heart is finished.

Time stands still.

Eventually I’ll smile and laugh out loud at myself for having become such an old fool. Then I’ll stop my foolishness and tie another fly on the line.

When the cold water has numbed my legs, or the snow is falling so hard I can no longer see the fly on my line, I will stop. If the rhythm lets me.

I’ll drag my failing body out of the river. Walk to my truck and perhaps drink the last of the coffee cold from the thermos I have saved. Then I’ll walk back to the river and talk to it. Thanking it for such a lovely day. Telling the fish to grow bigger. The river knows the stormier the weather the more I love its company. It bubbles back at me. Reminds me I’m still alive and that my life must flow along with it.

Sometimes I’ll stop at the general store halfway home for a fresh cup of coffee. And perhaps lie to the cashier about my success fishing. If I’m really lucky the storm will be blowing in full force by the time I turn off the highway into my driveway and a fire will be burning in the woodstove. When I was younger I would stop and chop wood to take inside. But I can’t do that anymore.

I take off my hip boots and wool sweaters. My wife watches. I’ll smile knowing I’ve cheated death one more day.

© 2012 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

Never In A Million

“A man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.”
–  Bruce Springsteen

By William Simonsen

They were so much larger than life.

They won the war.

My father and my uncles got richer than Midas after they conquered the world.

They paid their dues and felt entitled to everything they could get. Never did they suffer an instant of guilt for their successes.

We were just a bunch of smartass stupid punk kids with loud mouths. And by the time we turned 10 we knew there was no way we could ever equal their achievements.

Not even in a million years of trying.

My father stood six-foot even, weighed an honest 200, had a ruddy complexion from his constant high blood pressure and was strong as an ox. And he had a bad temper that would sometimes crack like a whip.

He alternately controlled and terrorized his family with his temper. We never managed to get through a dinner without an angry, lunatic outburst of some kind from him, or my sister (a budding young lunatic in her own right). Or both of them. Back and forth yelling at each other like they were possessed by demons.

I spent most of every family dinner sitting on the floor under the kitchen table to escape the yelling and screaming. I became adept at using the seat of my chair as my dinner table. Until the age of eight I ate dinner with my dog, who took refuge under the table with me. I gave him my scraps and we pretended the people at the table were all strangers.

When I was 17, I went away to college. I made great efforts to lose track of every single one of my family members. I was successful. I have not seen, heard of, or spoken with most of them in decades. I do not know which of the dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles are living or dead. It does not concern me. I left them all behind at the state line.

I turned my back on my family.

I am no good.

I still have nightmares about the Thanksgiving and Easter dinners, the Christmas Eve celebrations crowded with smiling people who, beneath their good cheer, hated my father for his success and likewise hated me because I was his son. I still have nightmares when I awake in a sweat, out of breath, filled with panic, trying to escape from the room full of noise and Sunday-best-dressed foolishness.

I have made a success of my life without all of those people who liked few things better than to hate me.

The last few times I saw Dad, I went to see him without being asked, just because I wanted to see him. He even flew the thousands of miles to see me a couple of times. He thought my crappy old house out in the woods a hundred miles from the nearest airport was a sure sign of madness.

But he was kind about it. He understood that I was living my life as wild as the wind. I think deep inside he was perhaps envious. My grandfather had died too young and thrust my father into crushing responsibility. Then he had married the wrong woman too young, and he had grown old entirely too young.

The last time I saw him I was pushing 35 and still made no plans more than a couple of hours in advance. I did not think about saving for college tuition for my children, buying a new house or starting a retirement fund.

I was much more interested in flyfishing and smoking dope. I knew that sure as hell, the rest of my life was there, lurking in a dark corner, waiting to ambush me, to turn my life into one like his.

I was doing everything I could imagine to hide from it as long as I could.

While he was in town, my daughter was still very young. In diapers. She had some kind of infant upset that was far from serious, but it made her most smelly and unpleasant to be around. She and my wife did not get to go out to dinner with him. We had a great time. I got piss drunk. We ate way too much steak.

On the long drive back to the house, he told me, for what seemed like the hundredth time, the few things he wanted me to do after his death.

My mother had been clinically insane for years. And she had been slipping into further dementia for the decade after her first stroke and could no longer be left alone. He did not have it in his heart to place her in a home. So I would have to be the hatchet man.

He did not have the heart to sell the family farm. So it would fall to me to burn those memories. The old place was too large a part of his life for him to sell.

And then he told me to sell his last horse. He always had at least one horse as long as I could remember and said he had every intention of keeping one until the day he died.

He sat forward in the passenger seat of my pickup as I drove the country road and leaned toward me in the dark.

“You have to promise me you will do these three things,” he said.

“Use all the money. Take care of these things.”

“Do whatever you have to do.”

I felt the good scotch turn sour in my stomach. I wanted to pull the truck over and puke up the overpriced roadhouse steak.

Instead I promised.

I saw at that instant I would never have peace again, or a happy family, or a mother, or a sibling, or any other relative who would speak to me, by the time it was over. I’d already lost them all anyway

So I promised.

He was my dad, I had no choice.

No choice at all.

It did not matter when he died. It only mattered that he died. It was over in a horrific hour.

I got a phone call.

I was on a plane before dawn the next day.

The family insanity was in full swing by the time I got there.  Everyone wanted to be hugged.

“It will be alright,” I said to them all, knowing I was a lying and, further, that I was the person who would make sure it would not ever be the same. It would never be alright.

By the time I climbed on another plane a week later, I had all the powers of attorney, wills, certificates and control I needed to carry out his wishes.

The battle was over before anyone knew it had started. It took them a decade to figure out how quickly I had grabbed power.

Yet no one knew why and I never told them.

It was between my dad and me. I would never tell them I was doing his bidding, especially as their confusion and emotions made them hate me more than ever before.

That was the way he wanted it.

If he had wanted the rest of the family to know his wishes, he would have taken care of these things long ago and fought the ugly fights himself.

He was too tired out from fighting to finish these battles himself.

Or maybe he was desperate.

Or maybe he simply had no one else to ask.

Maybe he felt I was perfect for the job. Everyone already hated me and I had learned to live with it.

And they were already convinced I was a no good.

By the time I had completed his tasks, I understood why he did not do them himself. Too many 24-hour long snow-delayed airplane rides. Crappy road food. Sleepless nights without end.

Dancing the jig, convincing bankers and lawyers and other pompous assholes that I would do as I pleased so it was useless to try to stop me.

My mother was nursed along for a decade before she succumbed to a painless end.

I went to her funeral alone. I did not take my wife and children to the service.

I had nursed the real estate and investments along carefully long enough to pay for her care.

No one in my old home town ever asked me over for dinner or tried to be my friend during my dozens of trips.

I had turned my back on my family.

I hid behind increasingly more expensive business suits and talked less in meetings.

On every long flight across the Great Plains I thought about the number of ways I was no good as I gulped gin and tonics, then abandoned all hope and smoked weed in airport bathrooms.

Because I was no good.

A week or so after the funeral I went flyfishing. It was almost winter, long past prime fishing weather. Ice formed on the eyelets of my rod as I cast into the current.

I did not care.

When a big trout ran downstream with my fly, he made the reel spin like a prayer wheel for the lost and no good.

Standing in the middle of the cold, clean river I realized I would never have to try to live up to my father again.

Ever.

Not even in a million years.

© 2012 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

An Allegorical Horse

An Allegorical Horse

By William Simonsen

They were on a horse-trading trip, father and son, visiting a well known, but gone to seed horse breeder whose stable was a good distance south of their home place. They took trips together a couple of times every year driving mile after mile on the two-lane blacktop back roads of the Midwest. They were comfortable traveling together. Sometimes they bought mares and colts. Sometimes they just looked at a lot of horses.

Looking at Doc Carpenter’s horses began and ended in the tack room of his run down stable looking at pedigrees. It was unlike visiting any other horse farm. Before visitors were allowed to see any horses, the doctor spent close to an hour explaining his particular ideas on horse breeding, ideas he illustrated with the pedigrees he knew by heart and had hanging on every square inch of the walls of the room which smelled of old leather, whiskey and horse sweat. It was quite an education for a young man.

After the catechism, Doc opened the tack room door to his stable to the horses, his riches. Well over 80, Doc remained fascinated by the treasures that stood  breathing in the box stalls. 

Doc’s eyes watered constantly, an early symptom of his impending blindness from tertiary syphilis. His training in medical school had taught him his fate from the disease he had picked up decades before in a Kentucky whorehouse. His daily exposure to death and suffering had convinced him to ignore his education and follow his lust. Now his every smile became a leer in the face of death.

When they arrived it was dusk outside, full dark inside the stable. Doc turned on the lights with an ancient rotary switch. All of the old fabric-covered electric wires were strung from one white porcelain insulator to the next like tiny electric poles. The boy expected to see sparks fly from the wiring at any moment. Instead huge mayflies and moths instantly began to circle the bare light bulbs in their eerie dance of death.

A snorting came from one of the stalls, then pawing hooves on rock hard clay.

Doc led father and son over to the stall. The head of the horse, mouth opened wide, teeth bared, came at them out of the darkness. The old stud raked his yellowed teeth against the heavy wire screen covering the opening in the top half of the box stall. Doc, who had seemingly grabbed a whip out of thin air, whacked the wire screen with its butt.

Then he made a guttural sort of growl and the old stallion backed into the shadows again.

“Here, I’ll bring him out for you,” Doc said.

The man and the boy stepped back a few steps to give the old man enough room to bring out the stud. To their surprise a light went on in the stall so they could see the interior and the whole horse for the first time.

A dark, dark chestnut brown. Easily mistaken for black in the evening darkness, the horse was smaller than average for the breed, but incredibly muscled and wide in the chest between his front legs.

The stall was whitewashed clean with a mixture of clay and lime on the floor. The center of the stall was several inches lower than the edges, a kind of saucer-shape created by the years of cleaning the manure from the packed dirt floor.

Doc looked at the young man — who stood well over six-feet tall and said, “He’d be too small for you, he’s only a bit over 15 hands.

“I retired him from the show ring when he turned 12 years old.

“He’s 20 now, but can still cover a dozen mares a year…if he gets his rest in between,” Doc said with a chuckle. Wearing wrinkled tan pants and an almost clean white jacket Doc was wearing two-tone brown and white dress shoes of the style fashionable when he was still young. He carefully picked his way across the stall and snapped the lead shank onto the stud’s halter, spoke to him in gruff unintelligible words, then turned to lead him out of the stall.

In one movement the old stud reached out with his teeth bared, trying to bite Doc’s shoulder. But 20 years of acquaintance with the old horse had taught Doc well. With surprising agility for an old man, he stepped forward and spun around and hit the horse on the side of the head with the silver-tipped butt of the whip he still held like a magician’s wand in his other hand. Neither old stud, man or horse, took a step backward. They stood like two old sparring partners who had learned each other’s moves so well they continually fought to stand-offs.

With the temporary truce struck, he brought the horse out into the broad alleyway between the opposing rows of stalls constantly showing him the whip, then stretched him out in a classic pose for the visitors. The stud snorted, still unwilling to cooperate quietly with the old man their decades together.

The father and son walked around the horse, admiring his conformation. Patting him. Running knowing hands on his neck and back. Both spoke to Doc about the stud, but he answered only the boy’s questions, meanwhile gently quizzing him on the lesson in pedigrees he had been given earlier. Luckily, the son was a quick learner and remembered most of the lesson. When he made a mistake, Doc corrected him patiently.

After he put the stud away, the three returned to the tack room where Doc pointed out old sepia-toned photos of himself and the stud when they were both much younger. But mainly he talked to the young man. Telling him to be patient when raising horses, and by implication when living his own life.
“A generation or two takes a very short time in the long-term scheme of things.

“Ah, but a day, just a single day, can destroy everything you have worked towards for years. Keep track of the years and mind your goals.

“When you breed horses every colt is a new chance, but every colt comes from the past,” Doc said as a kind of benediction.

 

A couple of years went by quickly, then the young man heard about a colt for sale that had been sired by the old stud. He cut his high school classes one cold autumn afternoon to make the drive to the a farm a couple of counties over to see the colt.

As he drove into the farmyard, he looked around for any sign of life, then honked his horn to attract any person in the area.

After the horn honk produced no results, he walked over to the feed trough and looked out into the field. He could see several horses trotting toward him — he thought the farmer probably pulled into the farmyard and honked as a signal for the animals to come at feeding time.

The young man could pick out the colt he had come to look at from a distance. He was a copy of the old stud except for his color — the colt was a much lighter shade of brown, a sorrel, almost red. But the way he held his head and the action of his gait left no doubt.

“Can I help you,” came a voice from behind him. The young man spun around, startled. A middle-aged farmer bundled up in plaid woolen shirts and jackets had walked to within 10 feet while he was admiring the horse.

“I came to see the colt of the old stud, Seaside,” he said. 

“You picked him out already,” the farmer said with a laugh.

“Is he broke to ride?”

“Nope, but he’s pretty gentle and well behaved,” the farmer said.

They talked for awhile, kicking small bits of dirt loose from the frozen ground, about horses and how the farmer had come to own the colt.

Doc had died earlier that fall. He left no family. The county held an auction to sell his real estate and horses. The farmer said the owner of an Alabama paper mill bought the old stud.

The farmer took the colt as payment on a feed bill which was unpaid at the time of Doc’s death.

While they talked the young man had carefully moved closer to the colt and now gently held him by the neck and nose without a halter.

“Do you have a bridle?” he asked. “I brought my own saddle, it’s in the truck.”

The farmer rummaged around in one of his old shacks, eventually bringing out a moldy leather bridle to the young man, then brought the saddle over to him as he put the bridle on the colt. The colt was big and strong for a three-year-old, but underneath his untamed side he seemed gentle and sensible to the young man.

The young man knew what he was doing was foolish. The ground was frozen and would be unforgiving if the colt bucked and threw him. The field was big and he would be thrown into the stubble left after harvest. If the colt got loose and ran off, he would be spending half the night, freezing his ass off trying to get his saddle back.  But he wanted to see if the colt liked to be ridden, and there was simply no other way to find out.

 

He waited three weeks — until Christmas week to bring the colt home. Skipped school again one afternoon and drove back to the farm with a horse trailer hooked to the back of his truck. He paid cash. Money he had earned working on a construction job during the summer.

The sorrel colt loaded into the trailer easily, the trip home was slow due to icy roads and the snow that began to fall as he left the farm with the colt. By the time he got the colt back to their stable it was dark.

The father had been watching out the kitchen window, wondering where the truck, the horse trailer and the boy had gone. He put on his old worn-down boots and heavy wool coat, the one he had worn around horses so much it smelled more like a horse than a real horse, then walked down the hill to the stable.

He came in the door just as the young man was wiping down the colt and warming him up after his cold ride.

“So you got a new horse,” the father said.

“Nope, you got a new horse. Merry Christmas. This is one of the last colts of Doc’s old stud,” the young man said.

“I can’t take this. You worked too hard for the money to spend it on me,” the father said.

“Well, that’s too bad because it’s what I decided to do.

“Here,” he said handing his father a towel to finish the rubdown of the colt. “Rub down your new colt.  I’ve got to park the trailer.”

And the young man walked out of the stable. He parked the trailer, then got in the truck, drove to the bar in town he had begun to frequent. He was far underage to drink legally, but he was big and the bartender liked to have him around if there was trouble.

He stumbled into the house late. It was getting very cold and the snow had increased. His father was waiting up for him watching some black and white late movie on television.

“I want to pay you back for the colt. He’s really a good one,” the father said.

“No. He’s your Christmas present…”

And an argument began. It was the first argument the son had ever won. The colt stayed and he took no money from his father. It was his last winter on the farm and he helped his father break and train the colt. It was easy. The colt was sensible and easy to ride from the first day in the open field.

 

Fifteen years passed like nothing at all.

He found a college. He found a wife. He eventually found a new home in a place far away. He never thought much about that colt in the frozen stubble field he had taken a chance on a generation ago.

As he became a man, life came at him very fast. Soon there were children and jobs and office politics and house payments. The young man rarely saw his father.

Then a deputy sheriff knocked on the door of his house one afternoon bringing news his father had died.

Early the next morning he climbed on an airplane and was standing in front of the old farmhouse 12 hours later. He braced himself and walked inside. The usual death rituals were well in progress — casseroles from the neighbors, relatives weeping and falling into his arms, hysterical with grief. He never shed a tear. He realized they were only crying for themselves.

He went into his father’s den, found files and records, then sipping a cup of coffee with whiskey in it he tried to make some sense of what his father had left behind.

In a large ledger his father had left on top of the desk he found an envelope addressed to him.

The letter was very simple and personal. His very complex Will covered all of the monetary aspects of his death —  who got what and how much money each person had coming.

His letter was a numbered list of instructions. Things he wanted his son to do after he died. At the top of the list was an unmistakable directive. “Sell the stud. You can finally get your money back and then some.”

He was shocked. It turned out his father had kept the stud his son had given him as a colt. After owning hundreds through the years, it was the last horse he owned. The last horse he rode.

At first light he drove the 30 miles to the boarding stable where his father kept the horse. A few years before, his father had closed up the huge stable on the farm because he no longer had the energy to keep it clean and nice. Told everyone he no longer needed a dozen horses to feed at five every morning. Of course there were plenty of boarding stables closer to home, but his father was very particular about the care of his horses. He drove the extra miles to what he considered a really good, clean stable, and perhaps to have a few minutes of peace and quiet in the car driving through the lush green country. Being one of his string of  horses was always a lucky break for the horse — the equine equivalent of filling an inside straight in poker

The morning of the day his father died he had made the trip to the boarding stable and had taken the horse out for a nice long ride. On the drive home his heart gave out.

The horse still looked good. A touch swaybacked and long in the tooth. but basically fat and content with a silky coat. The groom said they still bred a dozen or so mares a year with him.

 

When he got back to the farm the son went back into the den and sorted through more old files and papers. In the files he found photos of his father with the colt, winning trophy after trophy, ribbon after ribbon. The trophies sat on shelves in the den gathering dust.

There were more photos of the colt’s fillies and colts winning their own trophies and ribbons. The yet more photos of their colts and fillies.

As Doc had predicted, every colt had been a new chance at greatness.

A generation of men and four generations of horses had gone by in the blink of an eye.

Contrary to his father’s directions, he did not sell the horse. It was the only one of his father’s instructions he did not follow. Instead he gave the horse to an old friend who had the useless and expensive habit of taking in horses from good friends.

He made her promise not to tell him when the old horse died.

The files are in the son’s den now because he doesn’t have a stable or a tack room, which he knows is where they really belong. The trophies are stuck on his shelves along with his dusty books.

Pedigrees on old yellowing paper gone crooked in their frames are on the walls along with faded photographs.

 

© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

North Fork Firestorm

North Fork Firestorm

By William Simonsen

The big fire took off near the end of a hot summer when the woods were tinder dry. It was only three years ago but it seems like decades. I was working as the editor of a weekly newspaper in northwest Montana. It was a small paper with a large footprint.

We had a circulation larger than the local daily, but the staff was tiny. We had only a reporter, a photographer, a typesetter, two ad salesmen, a printer and his devil, and me.

I got a short salary based on a 40 hour week and never worked less than 60. So did everyone else. It was a source of pride to us that we consistently beat the daily to the good stories. With a skeleton staff. Week after week. It drove them crazy.

My job was a very educational and humbling experience. I learned every phase, every task, of putting out a newspaper. In addition to normal writing, editing and layout functions, I learned how to run the printing press, how to put newspapers in the coin operated machines chained to the front of grocery stores and how to sell ads if someone got sick. Or got sick of his job and quit.

When that happened I placed an ad in one of the national journalism reviews and suckered another poor fool into coming to work on our sinking ship.

Earlier in the year I had gotten lucky and managed to hire an excellent young photographer fresh from college graduation. Jeff had a towering natural talent, along with unlimited energy and enthusiasm. And he was three-quarters crazy. Rode fast motorcycles. Chased girls either too young or too old for him. He was a good fit for the job.

By August there were large fires burning in this corner of the world. Our fires were too isolated to get much coverage on the six o’clock news which was dominated by the spectacular fires in Yellowstone National Park.

Then a thunderstorm moved south from Canada one night and lit up the woods. Its lightning started a fire on federal land, on a densely wooded high plateau about five miles south of the Canadian line in the isolated North Fork Valley. Because it was tinder dry, the wind so strong and the area so remote, the fire got a two-day head start before anyone knew it was burning.

The North Fork of the river separates National Forest land on the west from Glacier National Park on the east.  A century of litigation had established an imaginary line in the middle of the river dividing the end of extraction from the beginning of preservation.

Up there the river is completely wild, untamed, un-dammed and unpolluted. The park protects it like an old granny protects her grandbaby. It allows no motorized boats on the river, no cabins or houses within a mile of the riverbank — either riverbank, only limited fishing and very little activity of any kind near the river.

The road up the valley is the back door to the park and also serves a remote border crossing used by smugglers of various substances since before the Volstead Act. It is 90 miles of bumpy, dusty or muddy, rutted washboard gravel. The North Fork road easily qualifies as one of the five worst roads in North America. County government has made periodic attempts to pave the road, but the paving plans are always stopped short by the opposition of the residents who cherish the isolation insured by their beloved horrible gravel road. It will probably be turned to stone by geologic forces long before it is paved by mankind.

The residents also hate electricity. And power poles. And wires. There was no power in the valley in 1890, when the first settlers arrived. There is still no power up the North Fork more than a century later. It might arrive a decade or two after the pavement.

Access to the park from the valley is controlled by a couple of seasonal employees who are arguably the most bored park rangers on earth. The lonely rangers had a little log cabin on the park side of the river — across a single-lane wooden bridge built of huge wooden poles back in first decade of the twentieth century appropriately named the Pole Bridge. There is a small town. More of a settlement. Actually, there was only a general store left, the Polebridge Mercantile, at the west end of the bridge. It is the only sign of commercial civilization in the thousand square-mile valley. I do not know why Pole Bridge became Polebridge. It is lost in the backroad-dust history of the valley.

But back to last summer — by the time the Forest Service realized it had a fire on its hands, the fire had burned over 5,000 acres. At least that was the estimate from the pilot of the scout plane. Considering its remote location, the Forest Service decided to mount only a minimal effort to stop the fire. There were only a few small ramshackle cabins without power or running water between the fire and the river.

I interviewed the forest supervisor before we chased the fire. Supervisors act like colonels in war zones. They wield godlike authority. Ed, the supervisor, very puffed up with his own power, said the river would stop the fire. He stated it more like an order than a prediction. He was to pay for his arrogance in the face of fire and wind.

Jeff and I left town, drove the 60 miles to the end of the pavement, then started up the endless twisting gravel nightmare of North Fork Road.

By the time we got to Polebridge, it was nearing sunset. Sane men would have turned around and gone home, but with the logic of firetruck chasers everywhere, we figured if we went back now, we’d only have to drive up the godawful road again the next day.

So we bought some supplies at the Mercantile from the few remaining items on their shelves, then continued north. We got five miles up the road when we were stopped by a Forest Service roadblock.

Jeff and I showed our Press passes. The grizzled old-timer leaning on the pea green forest service truck was less than impressed. He told us this roadblock was as far north as we were going. Period.

He said the wind had come up and the fire was making a run southwest. Directly toward the roadblock.

I stood around and talked to the guy. I told myself I was gathering background for the story I had to write about the fire. But mainly I was postponing another drive on the crappy road. He was from Ohio filling a summer job to supplement his Social Security check by working for the Forest Service.

Jeff was going nuts from frustration at being stopped short of the fire. Young and talented, yes. Patient, no. He wanted pictures of burning trees and towering flames.

I’d been listening to the grizzled old-timer for a few minutes when his radio started crackling and squawking with voices. We listened to the verbal chaos punctuated with words about falling back and getting out of the way.

After a few minutes of panic-stricken radio chatter, a truck came barreling down the road from the north. It did not slow down at the roadblock. It was followed by another truck. Then a couple of pickups. Then came fire trucks, pumper trucks and more pickups, all beating it south with sirens wailing driven by wide-eyed men hunched over their steering wheels. From their expressions, I expected the hounds of hell to appear only a step or two behind.

Between speeding trucks I asked the grizzled old man what he intended to do. He thought for a moment, then said he was heading out. We should too, he said.

I asked him where he was going.

“Don’t know for sure,” he said as he started the truck, “south.” Or Ohio, I thought.

I made a multi-point turn on the narrow road and followed the dust of the Forest Service trucks.

Jeff was now approaching total insanity from frustration. He wanted me to drive farther north — toward the fire. Now that the guard was gone he saw an open road to his photographic immortality. Not me. I figured if the hardened firefighters and grizzled old timers were running for their lives, it might be a good time to follow them.

I calmed Jeff down by lying to him. I told him we were going to find a high spot up on a ridge where we could watch the fire and get some night shots. A convenient lie when I told it, that would prove to be true. Hearing my plan, Jeff calmed down, temporarily.

As we drove past Polebridge Mercantile people had given over to their herd instincts and were stampeding away from the flames  like cattle.

We followed the stampede a mile or so down the road where a second Forest Service truck was parked in a semi-serious roadblock position. Another grizzled old-timer stopped us. It seems like the Forest Service has a large supply of grizzled old-timers. Perhaps they run ads, “Wanted – grizzled old-timers to stand around roadblocks, give faulty directions to tourists and generally sneer at city folks.”

I pulled up next to him and leaned out the window.

Before I could say a word, he said, “You gotta get out of the valley, the fire’s making a run this direction.”

But I knew that already.

I told him about our news media mission. I told him about the crazed photographer in the passenger seat.  I showed him our press passes. He gave me the grizzled old-timer sneer. “You gotta get out of here. Only Forest Service personnel are allowed to stay here.”

I shrugged. Then put the truck into gear and drove down  the dusty road. Jeff picked this moment to come completely unhinged. He began ranting about the pictures he needed to stay and take. Then he began raving about the loss of his career and the student loans I was keeping him from paying off, the fame I was denying him. I slammed on the brakes just in time to keep him from jumping out the door he had already forced open.

I told him we weren’t really leaving and to calm down.

I started driving slowly again as I held onto his collar to keep him in the truck. I threatened to pull over and thrash him if he didn’t calm down.

I was looking for a side road as I steered with one hand, stretched out across the truck cab holding onto the maniac photographer’s shirt with the other hand. We needed a road that would take us up high and away from the path of the fire. I spotted a likely looking road a mile or so along. I pulled onto the road then stopped and grabbed the map. I found the road on the map. It appeared to go west and up a steep ridge, stopping at timberline.

Perfect, I thought. Up away from the fire. Way up high into the rocks.

My reasoning in choosing this strategy was simple, rocks don’t burn, so fires don’t burn above timberline. No trees. No fuel. Got to get Jeff up high. Get a good view of the disaster about to happen.

As we drove up the road, it became a barely discernable double track trail through the woods. The flaws in my plan became clear. If my idea did not work, or if the wind changed and if the fire came this way, we could never retreat back down to the main road and escape. We would be cut off from any escape. As I drove to what I assumed was my doom, I formed a kind of idiotic, desperate plan to work the truck over the top of the ridge and down the other side. Bushwhack the truck over the rocks. I knew it was a stupid idea born of a terrible mixture of fatigue, fear and adrenalin. But it was the only plan I could muster on short notice. Instead of turning around as any sane man would have done,  I kept driving up the deadly road with the lunatic photographer ranting at my side.

He was getting more excited by the minute. I thought I would have to grab him by the neck and shake him again. But then we broke out of the trees at the top of a high ridge.

The view of the fire to the north and the huge mountains of Glacier Park across the river in the dusk was breathtaking. When a large volume of smoke gets in the air, sunsets turn blood red. The snow on the mountaintops and everything else for miles around was crimson. I began to believe my idiotic plan might work. If we didn’t burn to death, we would have a terrific view of the fire.

I got out and found a rock with a view while Jeff ran around from spot to spot talking to himself, laughing, looking for the perfect angle for his pictures of the fire. Jeff said he was thinking about climbing farther up the ridge to an outcrop a couple of hundred feet above us, farther to the west. I told him if the fire turned and I had to make a run for it, I would leave him to barbecue in the flames. Finally he began to settle down. He asked how long we were going to stay. I told him we were probably stranded until morning. If we lived through the night.

I ate some of the food we had gotten at the Merc. Then I settled down to wait.

Sometime after midnight Jeff woke me up by jumping into the bed of the pickup. My first thought was that I had awakened in hell. There was a huge column of fire to the north. It took me a few moments to figure out what I was seeing. Like a sun, a column of fire lit the entire valley and the mountain ranges. It towered above the mountains on both sides of the river. It looked like an enormous, slow motion tornado of fire weaving through the valley, moving southeast. Reports from experts a few weeks later said the firestorm at its peak was close to a mile wide. We watched as the winds it generated sucked in what appeared to be small trees at its base and spit them upward on fire. I would discover later that what looked like small trees were actually mature trees over 100 feet tall and several feet in diameter. I heard popping and cracking sounds as the fire moved. The pops and cracks were the sounds of the huge trees exploding from the tremendous heat of the fire.

Occasionally I would hear Jeff’s camera shutter snap. He wasn’t talking. Finally he was quiet. The wind was still blowing southeast, which theoretically, would take the fire across the valley several miles north of us.

I asked Jeff which direction the fire appeared to be moving. He watched the fire for a long time through a long lens, then moved it back and forth across the front of the fire, trying to judge its movement in the dark. It was tricky. There was the blast furnace of the firestorm and there was the contrast of the complete darkness in the rest of the forest. No lights anywhere except the fire. The moon and stars were hidden by the smoke.

Finally, he said the fire was moving east, almost due east.  Then he told me the bridge and the ranger station were on fire.

“I can see the reflection of the flames on the river,” Jeff said.

He said the forest on the far bank of the river, inside the park, was already in flames. Some of the trees that had been thrown into the sky by the firestorm had sailed over the river. In spite of direct orders from the supervisor, the river had not stopped the fire.

I felt sick. I knew what was coming next. I knew there was a huge stand of dead lodgepole pine trees on the park side of the river. There was no stopping the fire now. It would run through the park until it hit the rocks and ice at the top of the peaks clear up on the Continental Divide. It would be as bad as the Yellowstone fires.

Staring at the roiling, towering column of flames I realized the fire was alive. It was breathing like an animal that had run too far. Sometimes it would burn like a blast furnace at the moment oxygen is injected to burn off the slag from the steel. It made the same noise I heard as a child listening the blast furnaces in my hometown on summer nights. On those nights the sky took on a fiery glow and the furnaces roared like crazed man-eating beasts, just like the fire I was watching from the ridge.

Then the fire would slow down for a few minutes and the roar would fade away. Then, after a short time another blast would make the fire roar again.

It had become a huge breathing beast set on devouring everything combustible it could reach. A fire-breathing monster, it would take a bite of timber, sit back for a minute, chew it up, spit huge burning trees into the air, then reach out and  bite off another chunk of forest.

The firestorm continued until dawn, and perhaps beyond, but we used the daylight to get away.

I hoped crazed young Jeff knew what he was doing, that when we got into the darkroom we would have pictures to print.

Our escape the next day was easy. The fire left only smoldering ruin in its wake on our side of the river. We looked up the valley towards Canada. Huge sections, square miles, whole drainages, lay smoking like a devastated war zone. We could see nothing of the bridge or the ranger station, but the store was still standing.

A forest fire does not burn absolutely everything in its path. It jumps around wildly. Sometimes leaving trees standing on a hilltop, sometimes it burns the ridges to bare rock and leaves the valley bottoms untouched. Sometimes the caprice of wind and fire burn the valley bottoms and leave the ridge tops untouched.

It is probably not possible to completely understand anything as wild and unpredictable as fire. Scientists try. They will theorize and model fire behavior in their laboratories as long as there are research grants.

The drive down the long, dusty gravel road was surreal. There were truckloads of men heading north towards the fire to extinguish anything still burning. There were only a few of us heading out of the valley, out of harm’s way.

Jeff won many awards with his photos and soon moved on to a huge metro daily out on the Coast. I wrote stories about the fire full of facts and figures. I had graphs of acres burned and frequency of fires in the Northern Rockies ecosystem. I had quotes from Park Service personnel, Forest Service personnel, community leaders and U.S. Senators. I got an interview with a fire ecologist from the university.

But I wrote no descriptions of the living, breathing beast of a firestorm I had seen that night. I was not even sure what I had seen until one of the experts told me it was a firestorm.

“You know, like the firebombing of Dresden and London during World War II,” he said.

We drove back up to the fire a few days later, during the mop-up operation. Across the river, the fire was still working its way up the steep slopes in the park.

Jeff got some good pictures of the skeletal remains of the bridge and the ranger station. He took pictures of the burned out hulks of trucks and bulldozers.

We found weird little glades near springs the fire had spared. Places where it left green meadows and ponds untouched. There were charred logs swept downstream by the river caught on the remaining bridge pilings like a charcoal beaver dam. Again, Jeff took more great pictures.

There was smoking devastation everywhere. It was the battlefield the day after the battle. Only walking wounded and blackened ground.

The residents I tried to interview were incoherent or reduced to monosyllables. All the grizzled old-timers had strict orders not to talk to the press. The almighty supervisor was on his way to being transferred to a think tank rest home for broken down forest supervisors somewhere out in Pennsylvania. Turns out he had no authority over a fire.

I drove up the terrible gravel road last summer. The wooden pole bridge has been replaced with elegantly engineered pre-fab steel structure. The mercantile company sported a fresh For Sale sign.

The charred forest is growing back. Its green everywhere with little seedling trees and grasses. And I saw more wildlife than ever before.

I looked, but couldn’t find the road we took for refuge in the middle of the firestorm. I thought I would never forget that dirt track. But it has disappeared. Gone. Grown back into the dense undergrowth of a land that looks like it has not changed in millennia.

 

© 2011 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

The Barkings of Sanity, Jack Speaks

Out Of The Darkness Comes Money

By Jack Jackson

Republican leaders in Montana have apparently discovered their true enemies — themselves. Or rather, a wing of their own conservative movement.

As all political leaders sooner or later discover, it is always possible to be outflanked by someone who is willing to take a more radical position.

In the latest case, the outflanking maneuver was performed by those willing to move farther to the right than Montana’s ample conservative element.

So in the darkest time of year, Republican leaders made the discovery of dark money.

That’s right, in the darkness, more darkness was found.

The legislators on the right side of the aisle who consider themselves to be in the vanguard of a gravity shift toward more conservative conservatism were almost undone by people even more conservative with deeper pockets who were not afraid to call for a return to a time when all the seats in the legislature were held by ranchers and mine owners.

Sens. Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell) and John Esp (R-Big Timber) recently filed a complaint with the state political practices office alleging they were attacked during the primary campaign by an organization which would not reveal its sources of funding.

But wait, aren’t members of the conservative wing of the Republican party the very people who pushed for allowing political action committees to use unlimited funds to back candidates and to attack their favorite’s opponents? And didn’t many of them benefit from the anonymous political action money?

It appears the honorable senators got caught in their own trap. Perhaps it occurred to them that allowing anonymous political spending by out of state organizations wasn’t such a great idea after all.

Perhaps anonymous spending is only a good idea when the money is spent on oneself.

It must be a humiliating situation for the honorable senators. Their complaints sound almost, well, liberal.

Why senators, did you wait until after the general election in November to file a complaint when the alleged infractions occurred in May?

Were you hoping to reap some of the anonymously funded advertising during the general election?

Could it be because you were ashamed to file your grievance until you and your cronies occupy Helena for three months?

Good luck senators. And good luck in those party caucuses where you will not be able to tell your friends from your enemies. Careful you don’t get outflanked behind closed doors again.

Perhaps you should stand in a corner where no idea can sneak up on you.

Throw Us A Bone

By Jack Jackson

With the legislature now in its closing stages it’s time to take stock. While the latest news reports indicate our honorable legislators’ campaign against sanity is gaining momentum daily, they can’t go home yet. Too much damage to the state still remains unaccomplished.

So in the interests of bringing the proceedings to a speedy end and helping the legislators work through their backlog of misguided ideas, I’d like to offer a suggestion.

Combining bills could be a great help.

Our legislators seem dead set against any improvement in Medicaid for the state’s residents, no matter how needy they are of help, and in spite of the fact the increase would be paid by federal funding.

And they also seem to be focused on allowing the timely removal and butchering of large wild ungulates killed by vehicles on the state’s highways.

So perhaps they could consider combining the two bills.

In addition to allowing road killed deer to be butchered, perhaps a combined law could also allow a human fatality to be harvested for use.

Considering the economic ramifications for injured people without health insurance, severely injured people might prefer to be harvested rather than face the ignominy of a bankrupt life.

I know I would.

I’d rather be skinned and have my organs harvested — my body put to some kind of constructive use — than awaken from a coma only to face a hospital bill of hundreds of thousands dollars. The shock of so many zeroes attached to a debt would surely kill me anyway.

Without lottery winnings, paying such a debt is an impossibility for most people without health insurance. Even if given multiple lifetimes working many jobs they will still fall short and remain impoverished.

So how about it senators and representatives, how about throwing us all a bone? Passing bills in bundles and bunches before adjournment?

The court will probably overturn most of your work as it did after the previous session, so try doing it as efficiently as possible.

Pain and Circumstance

By Jack Jackson

The lack of wisdom from our legislators left most Montana residents gasping for air last week.

Just when we thought the state legislature could not be more useless, two of our local lawmakers  proposed failed ideas retrieved from the musty shelves of history. The proposals could be taken for the work of the insane or the terminally befuddled. In other words, the retreat from progress is being made in Helena at roughly the same pace as the session two years ago.

Our legislators are again leading the state as drum majors of the biennial parade of fools.

A plan to solve campaign financing inequities by removing all restrictions makes as much sense as pouring high-octane gas on burning houses instead of water.

Everyone in the state agrees runaway contributions are damaging our electoral process by allowing contributors to attempt to buy political influence. The idea to completely remove all restrictions on contributors is a throwback to the days when Anaconda Copper controlled state government with its deep pockets. He appears to be pandering to the political interests of the richest one percent in the most shameless fashion. It seems to be a blatant attempt to sell the state government to any out of state contributor who cares to buy it.

Does the sponsoring legislator see himself as a latter day Copper King? Or merely a king maker?

We should all ask why enormous campaign contributions from out of state interests are so important to Montana’s way of life. Is there a plan to make Montana a Third World country? This plan will certainly accomplish the goal of disenfranchising Montana’s voters.

Then there is yet another disturbing proposal from the always entertaining if terribly misguided King of the Canyon. Only in some alternative universe does the plan to allow corporal punishment to be substituted for incarceration make sense.

What makes the bill’s sponsor think a hardened offender will change his ways after 50 lashes of the whip when years in the state pen don’t seem to be changing any criminal’s habits? In the history of mankind, whipping people has never wrought lasting change.

It makes one wonder if the sponsor has been reading speculative novels about the Spanish Inquisition or sampling too much redeye instead of considering legislation during his stay in Helena. By the time the snow melts perhaps there will be a proposal to bring back burning at the stake as a substitute for lethal injection.

Requiring new bills to pass a psychiatric test before they are accepted for debate might help clear some of the logjam in Helena.

Mother Attempts To Burn Family

Mother Attempts To Burn Family 4/06

 By William Simonsen

Sequim, Wash. — Charged with attempting to burn her two sons and her husband to death, Sheree Clemons appeared in District Court gagged and strapped to a chair. She did not respond to any to the judge’s questions.

She is currently back in jail awaiting her arraignment.

Police reports allege she admitted setting fire to a room in the Sequim West where she was staying with her family.

She allegedly told officers she was trying to kill her husband Bryan Clemons, 26, and sons Shay Sullivan, 8, and Nathan Clemons, 2.

The family was staying at the motel after she had allegedly set their house on Bell Street on fire.

Clemons appeared to be semi-conscious while attorneys argued her future. The judge must now decide when, or if, she should have a mental evaluation,

Prosecutor Jill Landes argued for an immediate evaluation at a state hospital. Landes said Clemons “didn’t know who she was or where she was” shortly after her arrest.

Landes said, “We don’t know if (her condition) was the methamphetamine she was taking, or a nervous breakdown.”
But defense attorney Terry Mulligan argued that removing her from the Clallam County jail would interfere with his ability to prepare the case for trial.

“But we may want to do an evaluation later,” said Mulligan.

Judge Ken Williams said he was not ready to rule on the evaluation.

“She is in a safe place at this point,” he said..

Without a ruling, she was taken back to jail. She is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail.

It was her third appearance in court in five days.

No visitors, except her lawyers, are allowed to visit her in the jail.

The investigation of the house and motel fires that landed her in jail continues while she waits.

The motel fire was investigated immediately as a possible arson. Sequim Fire Department personnel initially said the Bell Street house fire was accidental, but were examining the house again.

Members of Clemons family claim she was never in legal trouble before. A search of legal cases in Clallam County yielded no previous record.

Her husband, Bryan Clemons, was arrested for alleged methamphetamine possession at the house on Bell Street the day before the first fire.

© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.

Shown The Door

Shown The Door 11/24/94

By William Simonsen

Reporting on the news is really fairly simple most of the time.

The first rule is — be nosey, ask a lot of questions.

Questions often lead to more questions and sometimes to answers.

This story contains many more questions than answers.

Last week I tried to ask questions of a public official and got no answers.

I asked to be shown the records of the Cooperative Planning Coalition, a loosely knit organization of private business and government which is spearheading the latest countywide planning effort.

Instead I got shown the door.

Instead of getting information, I got told my questions were “inappropriate.”

The public official is Kristine Lutton, campaign director in charge of raising money for the latest countywide planning effort.

I think Lutton is a public official and the records are public records. Lutton would deny being a public official I suspect.

Although she doesn’t work directly for any governmental agency, she does work as a fund raiser for an organization partially funded by Flathead County.

Lutton said her firm, Strategies, Inc., is under contract to the CPC.

The Flathead County commissioners have donated more than $20,000 to CPC.

This is a very fine line. If an organization takes money from a public agency, that organization becomes accountable to the public.

I think the taxpayers of the county have a right to know how their money is being spent.

And I think they deserve to know who is coming up with the rest of the money.

Are there people or groups or businesses with a profit motive donating large amounts of money to the project?

Who are they and how much have they donated?

Are they getting a tax write-off for their generosity?

Lutton said the planning effort will cost about $400,000.

She said Design Workshop, a professional planning firm from Colorado, is under contract to CPC for $350,000.

Lutton said her firm’s fees and other expenses will cost $50,000.

What is the money being spent on?

She said Design Workshop is being paid on a monthly basis, as is her own company.

Are the payments for a certain percentage of work completed on the project, or are expense vouchers tendered to the coalition?

Who approves the payments?

Who signs the checks?

Lutton said her firm has raised about $370,000 in cash and pledges so far.

But last week CPC went to the county commissioners and asked for an additional $30,000.

The commissioners said their budget would not allow the expense. Commissioner Howard Gipe also pointed out that CPC is getting free office space from the county which is worth about $800 per month.

Has CPC already spent the entire $370,000 it has raised?

If all that money has been raised why does CPC need more money now? The project is scheduled to take more than a year to complete.

Aren’t the folks who pledged money paying up?

Is the cash going out of CPC faster than it is coming in?

Are the pledges worth the paper they are printed on?

All I wanted was a look at the books.

Lutton told me that a list of donors was being prepared and “triple-checked for accuracy” before it would be released.

I don’t want to see a “triple-checked”, whitewashed list. I want to see raw data and then ask some more questions.

Unhindered, unfettered questioning is the only way the facts ever comes out.

That’s why Montana has an open pubic records laws.

I think the citizens of Flathead County have a right to see more than a sanitized list of donors when those people are planning the future of the county.

So far, all the press releases from CPC have pointed to a very uncomfortable fact — the donations have come from those who may or may not have an opportunity to increase their profits depending on how the county is zoned.

I do not believe large corporations have hearts of gold.

I do not believe they donate money to worthy causes unless they can influence a policy or make public relations points to improve their images.

If you doubt this theory look at the list of donors to candidates during the next election.

Donors do not support candidates, they support advocates. Advocates who will sponsor programs or law or administrative rules to the donors benefit once the candidate is in office.

It is a cruel reality of democracy in the late 20th century.

But I could be wrong.

And the only way I will find out is if I am able to examine the books of CPC.

Design Workshop may be doing a fine job.

CPC may be a worthy public organization with selfless donors.

The county may be correct in supporting the effort.

But the county should demand an full and complete accounting of all the money raised, and should insist any and all records of the organization be made public or immediately withdraw its support.

An official from the County Attorney’s office told me that the county doesn’t have a right to demand an accounting from CPC any more than it has a right to demand an accounting from any subcontractor for services in the county.

I disagree.

The countywide planning effort is not a contract to shovel snow from the sidewalks around the courthouse.

It is a matter of setting public policy. A study of how growth will be allowed to affect all the citizens of the county.

Anyone can drive by the courthouse and readily see if the snow has been shoveled from the sidewalks or not.

Discerning the progress of a planning process is not nearly as easily done.

The county money is being passed through the county planning office enroute to CPC, Lutton and Design Workshop.

The municipal governments of Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell are also helping to fund the planning effort, as they partially fund the planning office.

I think the county and the cities have a duty to demand a full accounting for its money. Officials owe it to the taxpayers as surely as taxpayers must pay the county and the cities their property tax before Nov. 30.

For the governments to do less would mean they approve of keeping citizens in the dark, that they condone hiding information about who is paying for public policy.

Without full disclosure of the complete accounts of CPC the planning process will be flawed.

It will always be suspect.

When someone in a public position tries to hide something from a reporter, or any member of the public, it raises suspicions.

Why is that person hiding the information?

What is that person hiding?

What is really going on here?

The point is a simple one — any citizen, not only a nosey reporter, should be able to walk in and ask to see who is paying for studies that will be the basis of future public policy.

 

 

© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.