Missoula Traveling around the world, you are not exactly off-the-grid, as much as you are out of touch or in a parallel universe. In India or Indonesia or Kenya the 8, 10, 12 hour time differences produce a funny “of the moment” focus on matters at hand, when you are on the day side of the clock and out of communication with your own “real” world. Cell phones are turned off to save the battery life. Email reverts to only the infrequent piece of random spam or, even better, waiting for you to find a connection sometime, somewhere later, leaving you with a feeling that you are oddly “free” or at least unfettered. The same is true of long distance airline flights where you are cossetted in a separate world between bad movies, good books, and pure exhaustion. These moments are weirdly, even exhilaratingly, enjoyable sometimes because they feel almost peaceful, not because they are disconnected from worry and stress for some precious hours, but because they are truly, wholly yours, if you can ignore the engine roar of the plane when flying, or embrace the exotic, differentness and sensory assault of language, sound, and environment totally different from your usual, yet commonplace to everyone around you.
For the last five years for a week or two or three, I’ve had the special pain and pleasure of being on and off the grid some 40 miles outside of Missoula, Montana outside of the range of cellphones and internet, while trying to balance work that I want to do with work that I need to do with doing nothing at all, reading, fishing, and even napping. Over the last two years, harnessing solar power has meant I can work, meaning I can enjoy everything else more without worrying about what I’m not doing. After my 16 year old truck made the trip from New Orleans and back last year only after getting a new transmission, four new tires, and a new hinge for the door, rather than endure the annual highway robbery of rent-a-car world, I bought a ’79 Toyota pickup from the brother-in-law of a friend from Butte, who vouchsafed its condition, and I knew would have my back in a jam. Crossing our fingers, my son and I, had no trouble with the truck, and then got the solar system running to my Airstream with limited problems. The propane stove was great for morning coffee, my daughter’s French press was the bomb, and there was a moth hatch on Rock Creek, so life was good and thinking about different things for a change was easy.
Lorde, the 17-year old pop singing phenom from New Zealand, has already made a couple of hits singing poignantly, and importantly, about the lives of people from places where no one would have “postal code envy” or the modest, medium sized cities where they will never make movies. Flying from Denver to Missoula, I chatted with a 30’s something, heavily tattooed young man in shorts. He was coming in from a 2-and-2, running casings in the oil boom in North Dakota where he had been the last year or two. A recent job fair in Williston said they were going to need 30,000 hands. Winters were 40 below. He was from Hamilton down the Bitterroot. The company was transferring him to Greely, Colorado where they were trying to work a field there, all of which was good news, he’d be able to move his blended family of a couple of kids and some stepchildren, including a stepdaughter only 9 months old. They were paying him $29 per hour on a guaranteed 40 hours and there would be overtime. I watched him walk ahead of me to the baggage line with the blonde woman who had come to fetch him. He’d given me good advice on a new case for my phone.
Catching a lift the next morning from friends on the way to find our new truck, they pointed out a new city park taking shape along the Clark Fork in Missoula. With some ambivalence they pointed out a couple of acres where condominiums were reportedly going to take shape. Growth and change were coming.
What should we make of all of these people and places? Countless lives and worlds, known and unknown, but endlessly important in the fabric of change, famous in their anonymity, measurable and mattering.
The old saying goes that we have to make our luck. My son and I walked up the road as the sun moved over the mount. He stopped me as two young bucks, still in the felt, froze twenty feet away to look at us as we froze to look at them. They bounded over the brush, and across the road and up the rocks. We kept walking and talking. My son commented that we had to work harder at home to find the silence. To really hear. To really think.
President Obama talks about “the bear getting loose,” as he searches to find a path. Perhaps he needs to “find the silence” too and do it with regular families and workers trying to find their way with real lives in the areas outside of postal code envy and movie locations. In the silence, we can learn to listen to others as well as to ourselves, and some time has to be made for the work.