23 March 2014
I read a 1981 Esquire profile this morning by Pete Dexter about a man who was brought up in Missoula, Montana early in the last century; how he was home-schooled by his minister father until he was ten, when truant officers came for him and formal school started; and how he spent summers not necessarily escaping the ‘cramped’ city life of Missoula, as much as embracing the wilderness beyond the pavement on stream-fed lakes and rivers between two mountain ranges.
I’m tempted to say that he lived in the simplicity of the Great Outdoors, but I would be using ‘simplicity’ in its most ironic sense…life is not so simple, when you can’t on a whim, stop by for a bagel and a House Blend on the way to fishing for your day’s meal on a fog-shrouded stream amidst the larch, romantic-sounding as that might seem. There’s no such thing as simplicity, when you’ve got to spend all 24 hours amusing and sustaining yourself, keeping warm and dry and driving away unnerving thoughts that the Three Bears is not just a children’s story. But there was for him the early-morning lure of fog on the lake, when nothing’s moving, but all creatures are taking measure of the day with the only tool in their toolboxes…instinct…hoping to stumble across a meal, hoping to avoid menace and plotting the sameness of their days around hunger and fear. The minister’s son loved that solitude and challenge. And while I would have had both the hunger and the fear, both would have been instructed by another intellectual capacity…the abiding knowledge that I am overmatched in the Great Outdoors…a topspin forehand is all the challenge I need.
Years ago a friend’s son to prove independence and courage took part in an Outward Bound-type experience. He was dropped off alone by seaplane on a riverside in the Canadian wilderness with minimal equipment and supplies. And with a breezy “goodbye” he was told by the pilot, “see you in a week, same place, to pick you up.” There isn’t enough chocolate cake in the universe to convince me to trust that my lifeline of a bush pilot might not knock back a few too many pegs of moonshine and forget to come fetch me.
The interesting thing about the subject of this portrait, Norman Maclean, was that he found his way to once-remote Dartmouth for college (it seems that remoteness was part of his DNA), where he was drawn to literature and the lectures of Robert Frost. From there he went west to the University of Chicago (nothing remote there) where he became a much-decorated professor of literature. But he did return to the Montana wilderness during summers. And when he retired it was to Montana, where he spent all but the dead of winter living in a cabin, where “the wind could knock your hat off” and Missoula was the place you went for indoor plumbing. In retirement in Montana’s outback, he wrote the novel A River Runs Through It that combined both his passions…language and fly-fishing. There are a lot of different paths through this life and humility suggests there are very smart people who have taken “a road less traveled” than ours.
For me, though, just give me a subway map and the old nine-to-five and I’ll be just fine.