My first goal was Billings, and it was going to be tough. The inside back cover of my atlas gave me a grid-like map with time estimates for the whole nation, and showed nine hours from Denver to Billings. Problem was, I wanted to take a look at Boulder on the way. The game was at seven; I left Denver at nine in the morning. That left me just an hour to futz in Boulder.
My first task was oil. I drove around Boulder in the rain and finally found a Jiffy Lube. It was very Boulder: an overweight New Age gal was my mechanic. She had Tibetan beads around her neck, called me dude. She was wearing a Colorado Rockies baseball cap. She was friendly. I didn’t like her.
I drove downtown. A friend had told me Boulder is like a carnival, with street touts and jugglers. In the rain on a Monday morning the other odd had packed up, and I was left with the hyper-rich surface of the town. I tried to find a used bookstore and failed. All the books in Boulder are new. Everything in Boulder wore a sheen. I wandered into a Tibetan business center. I went to the campus of the University of Colorado and wandered in the rain. I didn’t have rain gear, so I wrapped up in my sweatshirt jacket, raising its peaked hood as high as I could stretch it—synthetic spruce. I mumbled. The rain had driven the sane inside.
I stayed too long, looking. I left for Billings at noon, already two hours behind schedule. I had just about given up on the game, though it was the first game on my Pioneer League itinerary. By most standards, I simply could not possibly make it. The curvature of the earth. Nevertheless, I decided to try, and gunned it. I set the cruise control at 83 and enjoyed the new Western speed limits. Denied the land.
Rain petered out as I left Colorado. When you hit Wyoming, you hit emptiness. Nothing. I knew a Swiss guy who took video tape of the nothingness. "Nothing… nothing… nothing there…" runs his narration. The traffic disappeared, the rain dried up, and after Cheyenne I was flying over arid moonscape, a different continent and era than I had faced in the morning. Annihilation of space. My tape player was broken and I drove in silence. Oblivion in Wyoming, going end to end, and it is better that way.
I stopped exactly twice between Boulder and Billings. The first was for lunch, a rest stop in a Wyoming canyon. Half a loaf of desiccating French bread, some unrefrigerated Cambazola cheese from the day before, turning rancid. It was delicious. The second for gas outside Buffalo, Wyoming. Oil, gas: progress across the flats. By that time, I was having visions of baseball in Billings. Watching my clock and odometer, I knew I had a chance. My solitary, relentless march across the dry country had me coming in at seven o’clock sharp if I kept the pace. Nixing earth. I got back in and burned.
The Montana/Wyoming border was graced with a sign that said "Speed Limit: Reasonable and Prudent." I had heard about this and was excited. I’d crawled along in Montana back in the old days and thought this new lawlessness was the right choice. I moved my cruise control up to 88 and didn’t touch the pedals with my feet for another hour, snaking through hill country.
Billings: bullseye. I got there at about ten to seven, almost crashing as we curved unreasonably into town on speedways not designed for the new laws. Startled, I slowed up, pulled off at an exit, returned to stillness. My body ached with the change.
I had no way of knowing where the ballpark was. I stopped at an Amoco. A mangy, freckled, red-haired kid was behind the counter. He’d never heard of the Billings Mustangs, the minor-league team, but knew where the two Legion teams played. Legion ball is huge in Montana. I figured it had to be the same stadium and got directions.
I was right.
The stadium was downtown. Beautiful stadium, bluffs past the outfield, old wooden houses outside the right field corner. I walked in during the top of the first inning—close enough to on time to call the day a success.
The box seats in Billings were folding metal chairs, and hardly anybody had arrived, so I took one. I was close enough that I could hear Medicine Hat’s manager, who was also the third base coach, talk to the players. He was an obvious Southerner, marooned here in alien air. Displaced. Drying up in not-his-body’s climate. He spit a lot. He was wearing someone else’s uniform, with the name partially rubbed off.
I don’t remember anything about the score or who won. Somebody hit a home run off the Marlboro Man in left field. Both teams were terrible. Billing’s manager had just been fired. The crowd remained sparse, it got cold. Everything was tinged with red, the color of the Billings uniforms, the color of the dust.
According to the map there was a campground outside Billings on the north. I found it closed for some reason, and a ranger was there to kick me out. Empty land, the state. Unhappy, I drove around until I found a little Park Headquarters. I pitched my tent next to the building in the lawn. I opened a can of baked beans and ate them in the dark, hoping no one would arrive to send me away. I slept pretty well—the grass was thick, well fertilized.
I had a game to catch in Lethbridge, Alberta the next evening, and that’s another nine-hour drive. Unground the country. I got up early and hit it. I got to leave the Interstate—no speed limits on the backroads either, and you are closer to the ground. Ribbons of congealed oil, stretched across failing grass and dirt.
Eastern Montana is the moon ever so much as Wyoming is, but because it is farther north, the landscape is more tortured and blasted by cold; a vision of desolation. The tax protest group the Freemen were somewhere in that country, but I couldn’t remember the exact name of the town. I had read about them in the Billings paper. They were in a local jail, being obstreperous. Under the Montana sky, crushing and huge, you can come close to condoning madness.
The endless moon-planet of empty plain was mesmerizing. Two lane roads, silence. Pressed against the sky.
In far northern Montana I went through a Reservation; they were fixing the asphalt. Long-haired tribe members in tattered coats waved my car to a stop. I opened my window. "Stay left," said the sign man. I crept forward under the close heavens, driving in the left lane. After the construction zone concluded I stayed in the left lane for miles anyway. I was the only car on the road.
I stopped in Havre and bought a giant bag of Jalapeno and Cheddar potato chips. More gas. Machines, byproducts. Gray sky and industrial poverty diluted by open spaces, endless driving; I was happy. Goodbye. After Havre the road got even more desolate. I was on a tiny road servicing only the Canadian border and an air force / satellite base. The road took 90 degree corners in empty, flat country, skirting invisible human ideas mapped onto land. The skies dropped mist. The last of the trees cleared out: falling water under endless gray skies on the infinite rolling plain. It reminded me of the tundra as you approach the Artic sea.
In the middle of this ether I hit the Canadian border, a tiny white hut crouched against the sky, the only building in sight—you can see for miles and miles. It seemed brave.
Some raven-haired, dark-eyed, strapping young gorgeous brutal Canadian came to ask me questions.
"Where you from?
"Where are you going?"
"How long are you staying?"
"What is the purpose of your visit?"
I’m here to watch baseball.
"Don’t they have baseball in the United States?"
They sure do.
"You have a friend play for this team in Lethbridge?"
"You’re telling me you drove all the way here just to watch baseball, from North Carolina?"
"Are you carrying any firearms?"
"Alcohol or tobacco?"
I’ve got two small bottles of whisky in the trunk.
"You ever been arrested?"
He was openly hostile, his black eyes glaring. My story could not possibly be true but was too stupid to be made up. I smiled and he waved me through.
A few miles past the border I stopped the car, pulled over on the side of the road. I crawled under the wire fence, walked around in the open country. Yelled. Laughed. Lay down on the ground. Came back.
I made it to Lethbridge in plenty of time for the game, despite having to obey a speed limit.
This is how Canada feels:
Nothingnothingnothingnothing TOWN nothingnothingnothing CITY nothingnothingnothingnothing CITY nothingnothingnothing…
Glory and interruptions.
Lethbridge, leaping up out of the empty plain, has over a hundred thousand inhabitants. Why is it here? Unlike the squalid emptiness in Montana, it is well kept up. I had some time before the game, so I visited the Japanese Peace Park. Little temples and great big bells, spiritual inscriptions from a jungle across the ocean. A vast scattering. The ballpark was newly refurbished, the team had slick new uniforms and a new name, the Black Diamonds. Delving. Wealth. They had an insipid logo, a dog with a miner’s hard-hat on, but fortunately it was too small to make out from the stands, and the black and blue uniforms looked good under the golden-hour sky. They will sell plenty of hats.
The game was not close; Lethbridge crushed Great Falls. The lineup was a never-ending march of giant lumbering dudey dudes, importing their tropes to this manicured bit of prosperity chopped out of the barren zone. Before each man came to bat the PA system played a snippet of a song he had chosen. Lots of Led Zeppelin, George Thoroughgood. One guy had a snarling cougar dubbed in over the top of the music. I felt trapped in the basement of a frat in Madison, Wisconsin. There was one Black man in the lineup, Ernesto Spivey, a tiny person, batting eighth, the second baseman. His song was "Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can..." I liked him. The pitcher was Vladimir Nunez, a millionaire from Cuba. Vlad was probably the best prospect of the trip. This young bonus baby stifled Great Falls for seven innings, pure power straight from Cuban Olympic team defection. He yelled at the manager when he got taken out after the seventh inning. Who knows, he may be one of the richest guys in town. He’s got a right. What can you do? "What am I doing here? Who am I? What is this?" How many rich Cubans named after Lenin do you find in this ghost territory?
It was an easy, gorgeous drive to Helena. The U.S. border guards asked me if I had bought any fruit, waved me through. Ravage the earth. Do not allow flies. I set up camp on the turgid Missouri River forty-five minutes outside of Helena. I would stay there the next three nights, shuttling up and down I-15 for Pioneer League games. Burning, burning, burning.
As I drove around looking at Helena, I discovered a talk show on the radio, something called "The People’s Radio Network." The host was a laughing, good natured man. The People kept calling in, talking about the UN and the New World Disorder, and New World Domination, about secret UN bases hidden across the U.S., disguised as bicycle-fitness centers. One of The People called in and read from the constitution. There was advice on how to avoid paying taxes, which they told me are illegal. The program was on two different stations on the dial. The West. If I lived under that omnipresent sky, you’d I would tell people where to get off too. Perhaps.
Where I was living at the time in North Carolina we are trapped, hemmed in by greenery, by humidity, by wetness and life. The horizon is twenty yards away, the air full of pollen and moisture. It weighs you down, gums up your powers of abstraction. Builds different people, different art, different preoccupations. In Garfield County Montana, on the other hand, you can feel the solipsistic power of being the only person in sight—and that means miles. It is not because it is some protected wilderness area—it is because no one chooses to be there but you. Your mind stretches out, abandons sanities. This is our land, yeah, but it sure isn’t your land.
Most of all, it just the land, the land, the land the land the land, and that isn’t a quality you can well understand until you’ve stood on it.
The ballpark in Helena was my favorite. Old, run-down. Forest green painted, peeling wood slats for an outer fence. Mountain ranges beyond the outfield. Hazy western light, soft, weathered calm. Prosperity’s dream before a sobering July snow squall.
I grew up a Brewers fan in Wisconsin, so this is where I wanted to be: the Helena Brewers.
I arrived early and ended up sitting in the section which would turn out to be where all the teenagers sit. Baseball in Montana is big with teenagers.
I am not one of The People, and in Helena I discovered myself as The Frightening Male. A man by himself can be less a frequent sight than we may realize. Oh, it happens all the time at work, on errands, at home. But we don’t often go out in public, for entertainment, alone. I was dirty, hadn’t washed in days. Unshaven, gangly. I sat there surrounded by the young teenagers and felt the coldness of my position. Babies would run in front of me on the walkway, mothers would pull them back: "I don’t want you to go past this line," drawing an imaginary barrier five feet from me. Stay away from That Man.
I had done this to myself.
The sky continued to pass by.
Who is that man, sitting among the nubile, silent and alone, moisture-wicked refugee from the South? Who is that man, alone? Why does he come here?
It is more than something you can see; it is something you perceive; He Is Not One Of Us.
Butte is the quintessential Western boom/bust town, with a pit strip-mine bigger than the town itself looming on the northern rim. It is a town of hardware stores, abandoned houses, dirty streets, low buildings, the faces of sun-dried drunkards. One of the tourist attractions, listed on the map of the downtown, is a whorehouse from the mining days which, they announce, operated until 1986.
Montana has a passion for putting letters on the hills around town. Even the smalls towns do it: somebody climbs up a local hill or mountainside, paints some rocks white, arranges them in the shape of a letter. Butte had an M, unusual because the town is not name Mutte. However, it is a sign of the town’s nature: I was told the letter is in honor of the mine, whose name I have forgotten.
The M is on a butte that sticks up right at the edge of town, lonely and pointy. I decided to climb to the M, as I had some extra time. It didn’t take long. The M looks small from far away; actually it is perhaps 40x40, a group of whitewashed boulders surrounded by a high hurricane fence with barbed wire, bolted to the side of the butte. The M smelled intensely of old urine; the area around was littered with beer bottles.
I sat on the mutte for several hours, reading. It offered a view of the town on one side and the empty valley plain on the other. Sound carried amazingly well, and I could hear people talking in the flats below, at miles.
Eventually, at different intervals, two trucks came crawling along the barren surface of the land below, got out guns. They first fired away from me, into the dirt of a hillside. Pulverize the earth. Two tiny specks of men, firing and firing and firing. They second launched clay pigeons in my direction and shot them out of the air. The shooting was crystal clear; I could hear the sound of the sling letting the skeet go. I was troubled vaguely by the idea that I might be hit by a stray bullet, have no idea how far one can travel. The reach of violence, the desire to kill, destruction of the animate and inanimate, the known and the unknown, the live and dead.
I spotted the ballfield from the butte and went down for the game.
The ballpark was the converted football field of a technical college, with center field a vastly deep 450 feet—deepest in professional baseball, they said. It was a tired park to match the enervated town. An entire Jimmy Buffet record was played over the PA as the grounds crew readied the shabby field.
The game was a blow out. Lethbridge was in town, and those strapping lads pounded out a 19-1 thrashing of the Butte Copper Kings. The only real highlight was the Kessler K-Man. Alcohol is more a focus of baseball in Montana than it is in Carolina—the scoreboard in Butte was sponsored by Jack Daniels. And then there is Kessler. It is a local beer, and the premise is that if the "Kessler K-Man," a random player picked from the opposition, strikes out, the entire crowd gets dollar beer for ten minutes. Dollar Kessler beer. Tonight’s K-Man was Jason Moore, a monster of an outfielder. "Now batting, your Kessler K-Man, Jason Moore!!!" The crowd went wild. Strike one. Wild applause, whooping, yelling. Ball one. Boooooooo! BOOOOOOOO! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! He flies out. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
But in his second at bat, Jason struck out, swore and cursed on the way back to the dugout. The crowd was ecstatic, rushed the beer stands.
Jason was mad, and in his third at bat, he hit a home run on top of the hill outside left field. Perhaps 550 feet, perhaps the longest home run I’ve ever seen hit. Jason smiled.
Jason’s fourth at bat, the crowd was thirsty for revenge, and also just thirsty, but Jason did not oblige, sending another home run, not nearly as impressive but still gone, this time out to right field.
"That’s the last time you get to be the Kessler K-Man, young man!," announced the announcer. Feeble cheers.
In his fifth at-bat, Jason struck out again. Unfortunately, it was past the seventh inning, and the stadium could no longer sell beer. The crowd grumbled and groaned and shuffled off home, demoralized. The promised wealth of the mine, the momentary dance of symbolic violence, dispersed into the thin cold air of Western evening.
Dirty, drifter: me. Others straggled slowly past.
I’ll buy you beer. I’ve got whiskey in the trunk. Hey, want to ride around?
We could go to the mine.
It was the last day of my tour: north of Helena, out of the mountain foothills, back on the endless plains. Rivers meet in Great Falls. Hundreds of thousands of buffaloes used to gather at the fork. Now, you can overlook it from a Tourist Information Center. I went there to ask how to get to the park. A white haired, vigorous old lady explained it to me, drawing on a glossy map with a marker. Dead tree mixed with oil, sprayed with oil, and smeared with oil.
"How do I get to the downtown," I asked, wanting to look around beforehand.
"It’s here," she said, pointing to the map, "but you won’t find much variety there. We have a brand new mall here." She lovingly circled a spot on the map. She gave me detailed directions on how to get there. She found another mall on the map too. She circled the new Wal-Mart, and finally ended with the Sam’s Club, all unprompted. I left, dropping the map in a garbage can.
I wandered around the downtown for several hours, tired, demoralized, alone. I ate at a diner called Tracy’s where an ancient waitress in a brown smock served my greasy fried chicken between intervals of TV watching and cigarette smoking at a nearby table. Dead bird. I felt vaguely sickened by the food, my own stink, maybe last night’s whiskey. A thunderstorm looked to be brewing outside.
One day you find yourself a creature of the wasteland, physically, morally, spiritually, anonymous in a diner at the edge of the mountains.
I tacked groggily over to the ballpark, thinking longingly of the potions in my trunk, which had been getting me tipsy every night over cans of cold ravioli on the banks of the Missouri. Pasta pillows impregnated with dead steer, brined in chemical, bound in sheathing metal.
The park was vaguely open, sprawling. Willow trees beyond center field. The walls were painted blue, and thunderclouds scudded across the sky, raining on us fitfully. Large, cold, spattering drops, not enough to drench you, just to get everything wet and chilled. At about game time, the clouds began to break up, rent asunder by high winds. Ragged scraps sailed close above the park, twisting and disintegrating, flying at high speed, dark gray, turned pink underneath by the sun setting in the west, where there were no clouds. As the sun went down and the clouds broke up we were treated to a glowing sunset reminiscent of closing your eyes and putting your face close to a light bulb. The sun diffused into the moistened air, glowing, uniform, dominating, unearthly. The willow trees rumored and sighed in the wind under the last fleeing clouds. It was gorgeous, harsh, and Western.
Lethbridge crushed Great Falls. Their record went to nine and one. Ernesto Spivey ran around, snagging fly balls, cutting off grounders to the gap. His defensive play, over the three games I saw him, was the best I’d see all summer. He eventually made the major leagues, carved out a five-year career, now known as Junior, not Ernesto. Vlad Nunez also hit the big leagues, pitched well for a few years, hurt his arm, disappeared. Jason Moore, our erstwhile Kessler K-Man, did not make the majors. But this evening he hit another home run. Lethbridge looked like it belonged in another league. A juggernaut. Tens of millions of dollars, generated out of dust.
I drove back to the Missouri, ate, got drunk in the dark at my campsite picnic table, alone, one a.m., mumbling to myself, laughing. The earth continued underneath, scarred and inevitable.
There was a point when I was positive, enthusiastic, clean, and good. No cynicism, little contempt. I was good.
Put your palm to the gravel.