Monday, November 8, 2010

Montana & the High Country of the Mind

It is probably a good thing I do not live in Montana, for if I did, I would have this earworm in my head all the time: Movin' to Montana soon ... gonna be a dental floss tycoon, by the incomparable Frank Zappa, who did for Montana what Tim Curry did for Transylvania.

I have actually visited Montana -- once in real life and countless times in my imagination, with the help of Robert Pirsig's hippy classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig himself was probably no hippy, but generations of radical seekers have found both challenge and refuge in his autobiographical road story. Much of what I know about writing came from this book -- and only in part because I read it myself so many times. I eventually figured out that one of the two teachers who had really taught me how to write had been devoted to Pirsig. When I read Pirsig's descriptions of composition assignments he gave as an instructor at the University of Montana, I suddenly understood my own ninth-grade English teacher much better! Those who want to explore the geography of Pirsig's journey through Montana and the rest of the West will enjoy Mark Richardson's Zen and Now. I find that Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones captures the spirit of his thoughts on writing, though I do not know whether the connection is intentional.

As I've already mentioned in my Wyoming post, that brief foray into Montana was part of a cross-country drive in which my buddy -- and fellow geographer -- Mike and I did not stop for much. Even in Bozeman, I have to admit that I did not get much beyond McDonald's, where I remember Mike and I first started to think seriously about how to ration out the rest of our cash. We had about $600 for an 8,500-mile journey, with no plastic money of any kind, and we were down to a thin stack of dollars with a couple thousand miles to go. Not that we cared much; in fact, Mike has perfected this mode of travel into an art form in more than 50 countries, sharing a $2 room, for example, in Bombay.

Our drive through western Montana (which is the relatively populous part) took us through what might have been the longest stretch of Interstate highway without all-night gas stations. Running very close to "E" in a 1960 VW with no real gas gage, we wasted a few miles searching for stations off the main road. We finally got gas before dawn at a station we had decided would be our last hope -- we were going to simply park there and wait if it had not been open.

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