Landing in Billings Montana, the plane sets down on 10-storey sandstone shelf that forms the north edge of town. Once on the ground, I went to the precipice and looked 10 miles across the valley to the Pryor Mountains, which slope right up out of the Yellowstone River, forming the north boundary of town. Twenty miles off to the west is the corn country where I grew up. Sage and oil shale, our part of it; hard to farm but a strong combination.
Ten miles straight down is literally molten rock. The Yellowstone Caldera. Basically ten volcanoes dumped together upside-down in a massive pot under Montana/Wyoming, simmering for millennia. It could up and melt this place any time. But we don’t think about that.
The sandstone shelf – called the Rims – feels like a jawbone. It’s jagged and harsh, and it cuts the city off abruptly. The valley between the Rims and the river is full of trees, and of 109,000 people who don’t often leave. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, because it’s home. Photographs don’t do it justice, and people from here don’t even try.
Rather the capturing goes the other way – I don’t take it, but it overtakes me. Goodbye to cosmopolitan headspace, calm-clear states of mind, and my usual rhythm of getting things done. I stayed up there long enough to feel the landscape start to eat me alive.
The Crow Nation owns most of the Pryors, though growing up I learned to think of it as the place where General Custer got martyred. And that’s how the land is marked – with memorials to the aggressors/losers of the Battle of Little Big Horn. The National Park Service seems to make the decisions about how the dominant culture remembers.
I was up late every night last week re-reading the stories of the Nez Perce, who won the battle of Canyon Creek behind the ranch where I grew up. Chief Looking Glass was trying to get his people to Canada to escape the reservation project of the Americans. They spent a successful night there, fighting off the Seventh Cavalry from the top of the sandstone shelf. Lost 200 horses in the meantime, though, and that may be why they never made it to the border.
On the flight from Minneapolis, the captain interrupted beverage service to tell us we were over Bismarck. I tried to meet eyes around me for shots of recognition and got nothing.
But Standing Rock is everything. One of the Sioux leaders said “this ground is the holiest place on earth right now.” He is in the crux. Right now the secret-not-secret forces of harm are racism and fossil fuel addiction. The big stories are methane in the Arctic, carbon at 400 ppm, and a summer of hundred-degree nights in New Orleans – not the fascist game show. We obsess about the game show because that’s something we might be able to control. But this summer while everyone was distracted, the Earth hit its tipping points. The things we don’t want to think about are going to be coming to the surface. They’re here.
My parents and I drove out to the Boiling River soon after I got home. We soaked for hours while looking up at a mountainside and talking about India. I drilled them for (obscene) stories of an old friend who’s now a fracking boss in the Bakken.
Always my folks have been obsessed with the hot waters of the Caldera, especially at Thermopolis, Chico, Bozeman Hot Springs, and the steaming earth-crust that covers Yellowstone Park. I’m the only one in the family who’s not a speeding fireball; the rest of them need natural tranquilizers and use the hot waters to get peace. We’re always so transcendent at the hot springs, or so I remember.
Afterwards, driving around the base of the Crazy Mountains, my mom did the weirdest thing. She brought up the family story about my brother having a meltdown at the place called Custer Battlefield. And the other family story about me getting high on narcotics at the dentist’s office and making a scene in Chemistry class. She wanted to talk about these specific, vivid memories– we’ve come to believe we all witnessed events that are nothing more than stories. We made them up. We retell them and make them real and as we do so we are making things up.
This is way more metaphysics than I expect in a red state.
Here I am mucking around the collective forgetting, and my mom’s on the flip-side, making us see at the flat unreality of that which is remembered. Mnemonic anti-matter. A conversation I will honor by remembering, though the deeper truth may be that I’m supposed to forget it.
What you do when you live in the Rocky Mountians, is you drive. Driving is as much a part of the relationship with nature as the backpacking and skiing and soaking. (The Exxon refinery here on the banks of the Yellowstone is one of the dirtiest in North America.)
Sometime yesterday, we drove over the hill west of town where the devil rancher lives. (Long scary story.) That’s rural America by the way – its headspace is not rational like in cities and towns. The unsettled zones are full of spirits and animistic chains of causality, and this makes the scarce humans understandably superstitious. There are psychics and sensitives – real ones – all over rural America. Angels are invoked, demons are cast out. In the shared mind, the future is exactly as God-given as the past (or not given, indeterminate, as it is for my mom). Back in academia, this is finally being re-remembered – the religious studies people are getting interested in the ways rural American religion was always divinatory and mystical. Shamanic, even. There is an etheric world behind the world here. I bent over backwards to get out of that headspace, to not be from here. But it is still in me. You have go behind the gorgeous empty landscape to perceive the dense emotional, spiritual, narrative-historical tissue that people here rely on to hold reality together.
Anyway, three miles over the devil hill is the Ranch where I grew up. This isn’t only a cattle operation now. In the 1950s it became, in addition to a functional ranch, a residential hospital for orphaned and emotionally disturbed children. Starting in the late 1960s, my mom was the institutional cook and later a social worker; my dad the wilderness guide and later the preacher.
The mission of this so-called Ranch was to recover, or reinvent, a happy childhood for those least likely to ever get one. We had 100 beds and 20 horses. A giant waterslide, a bike shop, a summer track and field extravaganza, a swimming hole, the best Halloween party in the world, a bell choir, movie night, endless cross-country skiing, Christmas plays. Food fights, fist fights, runaways, padded rooms, sex scandals, suicides, stampedes, legitimate gang wars among kids sent out from the projects. When my brother and I were born at the end of the 70s, we joined the Ranch as part of the established fictive kinship. We thought that much fun was normal. That much sadness too.
With my parents yesterday, we cruised the perimeter of the Ranch and I asked if we could drive through the grounds, past the 100-year old stucco house where I was born, and the church where my dad preached until three years back.
We laughed about how hard it is to be a girl preacher’s kid – if you show any attitude whatsoever, you might be a devil child. And if you’re born a bit wild, it’s your functional role to provide the community with some of the scandal every society needs to affirm its ideas of normal.
Out there I realized it’s not the Montana landscape that eats me alive, so much as it’s just the Ranch. I’m not supposed to speak or write about that history, except obliquely. Everyone who has ever lived there has absorbed strong feelings of protection for, and confidentiality around, the children’s healing. They’ve seen too much that fees inexplicable. So when we are there, we protect their healing, and when we leave we protect their memories. But the place feels like it’s burning with unspoken stories, with an epic timeline that I’m well placed to tell yet probably will never reassemble.
As soon as I left the Ranch, I started writing. It’s the practice I loved before I loved practice. It’s absorbing like little else was until ashtanga. To get the absorption experience, I have to not care about results. Personally, the minute looking good matters, it’s not play. Consciousness gets sticky and feels a little gross. As sticky things do. Free writing is what showed me this thing about the relationship of play, clarity and joy. But now as I look at the history of my writing practice I get that there has been another energy behind it that’s actually a little dark. I started to write because it defused the psychic pressure that went with carrying around a secret history. At the time I still had this whole world of wonderful, hilarious, heart-breaking, untellable stories. Just the act of writing, on any topic at all, made that feel a little easier.
The Ranch became the thing I didn’t write about, so that I could write about anything else. For many people who make stuff, having one thing that’s off limits creates creative momentum; the energy of repression is effective, if wild. And it is basically unconscious.
In the art world, it’s normal to a favorite neurosis one refuses to heal, because one imagine this darkness is the source of the best products. Use your neuroses, they say.
Cultures have this too. Racism. Fossil fuels.
So, enough. This is me letting more pressure out of the cooker. I don’t even know what’s left in there. Maybe nothing. There are a thousand different ways to try remember back into the Ranch, and all of these can still protect the vulnerable ones and their memories. But right now looking down into it I wonder if most of what was there for so many years has burned off on its own. I may have been carrying around a basically empty pot for quite some time, like some lucky charm. How superstitious.
Last night on the drive home from the Ranch, my parents started re-remembering the ways the kids ran away from that place. There’s the story of the stolen tractor. The kids who got a school bus all the way to Big Timber and barricaded themselves inside in a snowstorm when it ran out of gas. The many who lit out on horseback. And the time years before I was born that they screened The Great Escape against the racketball court wall, and a dozen boys didn’t just run away. They broke out on tip toe. In cover of night, they sawed through a fence they could have jumped right over with no drama.
When I escaped at 18, I did the most scandalous thing I could. Became hyper-analytical. A scholarship to study philosophy far away, and beyond that another decade in higher education, were acts of defiance against a mystical, wild reality where facts were hard to find. A reality filled with the most vulnerable, most hurt, people we could find. At 18 I was not comfortable with this place – nor it with me. It pushed me out of itself with force. In the world I learned a lot out of a desire to distance myself from the original reality.
That was effective fuel for years. But in general the momentum of neurosis does not feel right for these times.
If we had a little respect for the animism of rural people, we might get a little woo-woo, but also we would have knowledge of the sacred. Useful when capitalism has actually become insane. If we got less good at milking neuroses, maybe individually and collectively we’d want to study their histories. Know them. And end them. If the really sad stories got their own rightful space… I don’t know. I actually don’t know what would happen if I completely integrated the realities of unconscious racism and unconscious relationships with fossil fuels. Those are the untold stories with the power.