Music – Sonny Curtis and the Crickets – I Fought the Law

Across the ugly west.

We left in the early afternoon on Friday.  Just the four of us, and a hundred thousand other commuters knocking off a early to beat the traffic.  Right.  Hundreds of miles of idling vehicles pointed east, bumper to bumper, ad infinitum.  80 was a river of cars frozen solid.  FUCK.  It’s the kind of soul-rending anticlimax that makes you want to give up on a vacation, on all vacations, on belief in freedom or goodness in the world, and just crawl the fuck home to your dreary rut.

Who are you goddamn people on this freeway?  Where are you going?  Why don’t you just pull off somewhere and kill yourselves so the rest of us can get on our goddamn way?

We have business in the desert tonight.

I look at the cars that stretch to the horizon and hate them all passionately, bitterly.  I look at the girl in the Accord next to me and wonder what she would look like on fire.

Four horrid hours to Sacramento.

Then things cleared up, and doing a determined 100 in the carpool lane we got seriously underway.  Up the mountains and out of the smog, thank christ.  It felt good to go fast.

California is a cesspit, a sick wasteland polluted ten times over with every kind of greed and depravity, an overcrowded human landfill.  As we head for the border at Boomtown I flip my home state the bird, not bothering to look back.  Later you scummy bastards.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the whole bloated monstrosity will fall into the ocean while we’re away, taking with it all our budget crises and gang warfare and corrupt, vile citizenry.

Not a tear would I shed.

“Hey,” says Peter to no one in particular,  “We’re going to Montana!”


Truckee’s known for two things:  Time-share condos and cannibalism.  I doubt they mention that second part to the rubes that come up for the ‘free’ seminars.

For the low price of $30k a year, you too can spend two off-season weeks a year where not so long ago some starving, frost-bitten pioneer gnawed charred meat from his dead wife’s femur.

Truckee’s a terrible place.  I suggested we go on to Reno for dinner.

We let Peter pick a restaurant in Reno, foolishly.  He managed to find a place fifteen miles off the freeway way out in the sprawl, beyond the strip and all its empty, bankrupt casinos.  It’s eerie to see them vacant, their million gawdy lights shattered and dark and their doors boarded shut.  They’re ghastly monuments to a mid-80s prosperity, some past boom that shitheel Nevada may never know again.

Reno long ago lost whatever marginal glory it had.  Now it’s just another decaying overbuilt burg, slowly being reclaimed by the desert.

The restaurant was too expensive.  An old guy who looked like a sitcom principal was playing off-key James Taylor on steel-string guitar out in the garden.  Our bulimic hostess seated us near a fountain where several unsupervised children were splashing each other.

“Nice pick, Peter.  Where the hell are we?”

“Hey, don’t blame me, blame Yelp.”

“You’re terrible.  This is why you aren’t given responsibilities.  Of any kind.”

“Screw you.  You pick next time, ass.  See what you can come up with.”

We ate our overpriced chicken, listening to a bad falsetto version of Leavin’ On A Jet-plane with three-part screaming child accompaniment.  We discussed literature and baseball and other snobby things, as if high-brow California conversation elevated us above the other patrons.

It’s hard to believe that this city was one of the fastest-growing places in the U.S. a few years back.  250k people living and breeding and mowing their Home Depot sod lawns in a place without the water resources to support even a tenth of that.  With the casinos closed and unemployment skyrocketing, the whole Eastern Sierras are one burst aqueduct away from Mad Max-style barbarism and rioting.

It was 106 degrees with the sun already set, though after San Francisco frigid summer I relished the heat.

We got gas and headed off into the desert, glad to quit Reno.

It’s an awful damn city.


My turn at the wheel, and I drove like a maniac through the night.  I slalomed back and forth between the lanes, passing truckers so fast they might as well have been stopped.  I was desperate to make up for lost time.  Bruce, Laura, and Peter may not have noticed how fast I went.  It’s entirely possible.  The empty desert suffocates all perspective, all measure.  Only the speedometer and the occasional whooshing sound as I blew past trucks full of onions and pesticide reminded me of my reckless speed.

We got to Imlay at midnight.  Imlay is not a town, not even a village.  There’s not even a building there per se.  It’s just a sign along the road, hammered into the dirt by someone who decided that this particular stretch of parched waste needed to be differentiated from the hundreds of miles of identical parched waste surrounding it.

There is nothing in Imlay except Thunder Mountain.

This is a true story: In 1968, an aging BART cop named Frank went crazy and, leaving behind his life and all semblance of normalcy, drove into Nevada.  His pickup truck broke down in Imlay.  There, stranded in the heat, he was visited by feverish visions and angry Indian spirits.  He took the name Chief Rolling Thunder and started building a monument out of abandoned junk, sheet metal, and home-made mortar.

Piece by rusted piece, Frank began his life’s work with trembling, frantic hands.  Thunder Mountain grew, tumorous and strange, out of the desert.  Five years later it burned to the ground in a lightning storm.

How you catch a thing made entirely out of broken bottles, wrecked Buicks and fucking (i) sand on fire is beyond me, but burn it did.  I digress.

Frank, fortified against all despair and self-doubt by his visions and his insanity, moved five miles down the road and started fresh.

This second Thunder Mountain has stood the test of time, a freakish, amorphous blob of a building obviously constructed by a man whose ignorance of the principals of structural design is only matched by his dissociation from reality.  The sides of the main building are made of little pieces of everything, like some oversized vermin’s nest.  Refrigerators, stones, four doors of a ’49 Pontiac, whatever shit Frank could find out in the desert.  Crooked walls of mortar and old farming combine parts meander out across the property.  Crude statues with twisted, poorly-proportioned faces stand guard at random intervals along the fences.  There are many heaps of bent metal and unidentifiable wreckage, stored as material for some future creation.  Illegible, rambling manifestos about the plight of the native peoples of the American West are painted on every surface, interior and exterior.  What few words remain today, their uneven letters faded by decades of weather and wear, hint at a deep and passionate psychosis.




THE GREAT SPIRIT remembmers.

Thunder Mountain is a strange fucking place.  I’ve been there many times.  This trip, though, we were paying homage with a purpose.


I shut the headlights off and slowly drove the last quarter-mile in the dark.

Laura, ever the lawyer, was in the back seat looking up the penalties for felony vandalism in the state of Nevada on her Blackberry.

“What if we get caught?  I could be disbarred!  What if we get arrested?”

“Nobody’s out here to arrest us.” said Bruce, reassuring.  “It’s much more likely one of us gets bit by a rattlesnake or something.”


“I wouldn’t worry about getting arrested, Laura.  Anybody weird enough to be out here in the middle of the desert at midnight is more likely to shoot us than arrest us.”  I said.


“Besides, it’s not like we’re really vandalizing the place.  We’re improving it.  It’s anti-vandalism.  At worst, it’s rogue art installation.”

“I am not taking the fall for this.  If I see a cop, I’m calling the police to report you guys.”

“I’m sure they’ll totally believe you weren’t involved when you turn us in, Laura. ‘I just happened upon my father and my two friends out here in the desert vandalizing this landmark and I knew it was my duty to report them!’ Yeah right.”

“SHHHH.” Peter hissed.  “I see headlights.”

“Oh shit.”

I stopped the car.


We waited in the dark, huddling behind the car and watching the headlights a mile or so up the hill from us.  They moved closer.

“Shit, it’s coming this way.”


“Now what?”

“Just get in the car and let’s go.”

“No way. What about the mission.”


The headlights stopped again.  Bruce poured some water into a bucket and started mixing up the cement.

“Alright screw it, just hurry up.”

The headlights moved closer.


We climbed over the fence and into the main compound.  I expected Thunder Mountain, warped horror-film backdrop that it is, to be terrifying in the dark, but without the moon the desert’s so pitch-black you can’t see far enough to be afraid of anything.

Bruce poured the mortar on to the hood of one of the rusted-out stationwagons built in to a southern wall.  I squished our giant cement leaf, one of my mother’s latest craft projects, down into the gray blob.

“Is it working?”

“What do you mean is it working, Peter? It’s fucking cement.”

“I mean is it sticking?”

“It takes forty-eight hours to dry you reta…”

“SHHHHH YOU GUYS.  BE QUIET.” Laura snapped.

The headlights were stopped again.

Who the hell is up there?  What are they doing out in the desert?  There is nothing for a hundred miles in any direction.  Nothing.  Not a streetlight, not a gas station, nothing.

Nobody has any right being way the fuck out there in the middle of the night.  Us included.

“No way is it a cop.”

“No way.  Why would they be out here?”

“They wouldn’t.”

“Right. Not a cop.”

“More likely it’s a farmer, or a hermit.”

“Or a murderer.”

“It’s probably just a murderer.”



I pressed down again on the giant leaf.  Mosquitoes buzzed in my ears, the only sound besides our hushed breathing.

“The lights are moving again.”

“Is it done?”

“They’re coming.”

“It’s done enough.  Let’s split.”

We ran for the car, tripping and stumbling in the blackness.  The dome-light clicked on when we opened the doors, making us a beacon against the empty night.

“CLOSE THE DOORS we look like a fucking lighthouse.”

I gunned the engine and we whipped around in the dust, heading back for the safety of the freeway.

The lights didn’t follow.  Whatever weird bastard was dicking around out in the dark with the jackrabbits and the sagebrush gave no hint of further movement.  He was likely discouraged by the two screeching, dusty donuts I pulled at a wide spot in the sandy road.  Such a display of driving skill and bravado let him know that a successful pursuit of us was next to impossible.  Booya.

I turned the radio back on as we found the paved road once again.  Radar Love was playing.  Perfect.  Peter cranked it up.

“You hear this?” I shouted over the music.  “This song?  This is fucking (i) providence.  We have done well, friends.  The spirits are pleased with our boldness.  Old Dead Frank thinks the world of us.”

“Shut up Trevor.”

“Fuck you Peter.  Now gimme a high-five on a job well done.”

I have no idea who came up with the plan to add our own unique little affectation to Thunder Mountain, to improve (deface?) a place the great state of Nevada may or may not consider an Historic Landmark.  Chances are nobody will ever notice it, our little two-foot cement leaf tucked in amongst twenty tons of garbage and weirdness.  Chances are no more than a hundred people on Earth even know Thunder Mountain exists.  In ten or so visits over the years, I’ve never once seen another human being there.

Those headlights were the closest thing to another living person I’ve ever encountered in Imlay.

Still.  It’s comforting to know that, out in what is literally the middle of fucking nowhere on an unmarked dirt road in the desert, there is a shrine dedicated to all that is strange and pointless and unfathomable in the world.  And in that temple there’s now a cement leaf.  A gift from us to crazy-ass Frank and his restless Indian spirits.

Maybe some future pilgrim will find it, and appreciate it.

Maybe they’ll look in the dried cement and wonder what the letters TG stand for.


We stopped in Battle Mountain for the night, another tiny shit village in a long line of tiny shit villages that dot the highway across Nevada.  Nobody lives in these places, towns like Lovelock and Battle Mountain and Zzyzyx, except gas station owners, whithered truckstop whores, and a few survivalist hard-scrabble sheep farmers.  That section of Nevada is a hellish and lifeless expanse.  It’s a hard land.  Unforgiving.  Look into the dead eyes of the locals, people utterly unmoved by any miracle or horror, and it’s easy to see that bad things happen in the desert.  Brutal violence and full-tilt drug abuse are the norm.  There are a thousand horrible ways to die out there, and trust me when I say that nobody in Elko will give a fractional fuck when you’re found crucified and rotting on a telephone pole out in a field.  In a place like that, even the best become desensitized.  Desensitized or stark raving mad.

Travelers take heed.  Do not stop for anything but gas or water.  Do not speak to strangers.  Roll up your windows and drive as fast as possible across that bleak flat void.  Do not look back, and don’t slow down until you see cornfields and blond Midwestern children playing in the road.  Many a naive vacationer has ended up as a pile of bleached and broken bones, their RVs nothing but blackened shells stripped of anything valuable.

Only the foolish man lingers in central Nevada longer than necessary.

I was happy, as always, to reach Jackpot and the Idaho border alive.


We burned through Idaho without incident, stopping only at the Blackfoot reservation for gas.  To make up for three hundred years of repression and murder, the Shoshone and other local tribes are exempt from federal and state gas taxes.  Knowledgeable travelers like myself take advantage of this.  Fort Hall is a depressing desert ghetto, a place of heart-wrenching poverty and despair, but $1.95 a gallon makes it worth the stop.

At the end of two solid ten-hour driving days we crossed into Montana at Raynold’s Pass.  Montana is a beautiful place, relatively unspoiled and certainly a paradise after ugly Nevada and Idaho’s endless Wal-mart sprawl.  We set up our tents then spent a few hours drinking Charles Shaw and catching up with my large extended family, which had taken over most of the campground.

Then we went fishing, and all was right with the world.


Our primary occupation while in Montana is fishing.  Flyfishing.  No worms, spoon lures, PowerBait, none of that primitive and clumsy crap.  Flyfishing is a gentleman’s sport, an elegant and complicated passtime.  It requires very large investments of both time and money to become even moderately abled, which is probably why it’s so popular amongst affluent retirees and other white people with disposable income.

Flyfishermen, unlike their plebeian ‘regular’ fisherman counterparts, are not superstitious.  They consider superstition beneath them, a lower-class trapping of small minds.  They don’t believe in things like ‘luck’.  That being said, however, one simply cannot fish for many years without developing a certain sense of the quarry’s preferences and peculiarities.  These discoveries are then shared and discussed at length amongst flyfishermen at various bars and flyshop counters, and thus these purely empirical observations are shared across flyfishermen as a group, becoming a sort of popular lore or science.  Fish are capricious and crafty beasts, and a familiarity with this collective experience can mean the difference between limiting out and getting entirely skunked.  Here, then, are some important EMPIRICAL TRUTHS, not superstitions, about fish that I have learned either firsthand or from very authoritative-sounding people.

Fish science.

Things fish hate:

1)  Fair weather.  Fish have an instinctual dislike of good conditions.  They know that the more pleasant the day, the more likely fishermen are to be on the river and thus the more likely they are to get caught.  This makes them very fickle during fair weather.  There’s an inverse correlation between how pleasant things are and how many fish you’re catching.  If it’s sunny and warm with a light breeze, you will not catch a damn thing.  If you’re in the middle of a thunderstorm risking death by lightning and flashflood, you’ll undoubtedly catch fish like crazy.  I’ve witnessed this firsthand on many occasions; I’ve been fishing quietly, not getting a bite until 40mph winds and a sandstorm blow in making it impossible to cast, at which point the fish go nuts.

2)  New equipment.  Fish hate new equipment, in particular rods and hats.  Fish are so sensitive to this that one person wearing a new hat can ruin the fishing for an entire stretch of river.  Be cautious when wearing a new hat, and warn those around you so they won’t needlessly blame themselves when they can’t catch a goddamn thing.  A piece of equipment is considered ‘new’ until you catch a fish while using it or, in the case of waders, until you get a hole in them.

3)  Digital cameras.  Large fish are self-conscious, and notoriously camera-shy.  If you or someone near you has access to a camera, you will only catch crappy, small fish.  Only when there is no camera within easy reach will you ever land a 19 inch monster.  Many times I’ve pulled in a trout that was like a baseball bat with fins only to find my camera-wielding mom was just out of sight.

4)  Neil Young.  This particular loathing outstrips all of the previous three combined in its potency.  You may occasionally catch a fish on a nice day, or while wearing a new vest, but fish seriously fucking HATE Neil Young.  While not as important to flyfishermen, who are usually too puritanical to bring a radio on their float tubes, when fishing from a boat with a stereo it’s an absolutely essential piece of fish knowledge.  Some of you may be shaking your heads, disbelieving, but I don’t care.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  I don’t claim to know (i) why fish hate Neil Young.  I am not a fishologist.  I just know that they do.  The only time you will catch a fish with Neil Young playing is when the fish in question is suicidally brave and purposefully decides to take your bait with the hope of getting into the boat, breaking free and destroying your radio with its angry, desperate flopping.  Fish aren’t particularly courageous animals, so it’s better to not even bother with Neil Young when you’re looking to fish seriously.

Things fish like:

1)  Shitty weather, in particular thunderstorms, blizzards, and high winds.  (see above)

2)  Old, raggedy equipment.  (see above)

3)  The very obscenely early morning.  Fish like to get up early.  Very, very early.  However early you want to get on the river, the fish will be hungry two to three hours before you get there.  There will usually be some super old dude leaving the river about the time you arrive who will want to explain this to you in the most condescending way possible.

Being a member of a serious fishing family, I have been literally dragged out of bed several hours before sunrise by various uncles and cousins my entire life just so we can get on the water when “the fish are active”.  I do not know the reasoning behind this fish behavior, although it’s possible that the same comfort / catching proportionality discussed in the Fair Weather rule above applies.  It’s also possible that fish are just dicks and like seeing unfortunate kids dragged half-unconscious out into the middle of a freezing cold river at six in the damn morning.

4)  Angry wives / girlfriends.  Again, I don’t claim to know why fish like this, but my theory is that pissed off significant others exude some kind of pheromone or biochemical that gets on one’s waders and is then spread into the river, exciting the fish.  The more pissed off the woman in question is, the more aggressive and hungry the fish will be.  Although this can, at times, put the fisherman in the awkward position of choosing between good fishing and husbandly responsibility, remember that any reliably observed fish behaviorisms can be used against them.  On a couple of occasions I’ve even tried to goad my even-keeled, good-natured girlfriend Ellie into a screaming match before a fishing expedition in the hopes of guaranteeing a good catch, but so far with mixed results.

5)  Hotspots.   Fish are territorial, often congregating locally in short stretches of river for no apparent reason.  Finding a hotspot is a rare and enjoyable occurrence, and it’s essential to lie remorselessly when asked about a hotspot by other fishermen lest they come down and spook all the fish with their poor technique.  If you’re catching fish under the bridge, tell everyone you meet that they’re biting like crazy a quarter-mile down river next to the mosquito bog.  If you ask someone else about a hotspot, rest assured that whatever they tell you will be complete horseshit, and that your best course of action is going anywhere BUT the place they just told you about.  If you actually (i) see another fisherman find a hotspot, be sure to fish close enough that you can charge in and take it when they walk away for a few minutes to go pee or whatever.


Laura, Peter, Bruce and I headed in to Yellowstone a few days later to backpack up to a place called Grebe Lake.  We packed our fishing gear, some freeze-dried food, and a can of bear mace before heading off.  Wildlife, especially elk and buffalo, will pretty much ignore you in Yellowstone unless you actively mess with them.  A buffalo is no more afraid of you than you are a dachshund, and until you run screaming at them or try to kill one with a rock, it’s not worth their energy to trample you.  Bears, however, love to fuck with people.  Bears are intelligent animals, often resourceful to a fault.  They know that humans carry favorite bear snacks like Oreos, licorice, and toddlers.  This makes bear mace an absolute necessity when backpacking in Yellowstone.  You can blast a black bear in the face with it and hopefully discourage him long enough for you to escape.  Should you encounter a grizzly, you can use the bear mace on your least-favorite companion (Peter) and run like fuck, hoping the grizzly will attack your now-disabled friend instead of you.

Thankfully, the fishing at Grebe Lake a.k.a. Grebe National Mosquito Refuge was excellent.  Catching fish helps one forget about losing a pint of blood an hour to voracious clouds of parasites.  I alone lathered on enough 100% DEET bug repellant to get cancer ten times over.  In general it’s best to use the stuff in extreme moderation, since ingesting it virtually guarantees you’ll die of a brain aneurysm or your kids will come out with flippers for hands.  Jungle Juice seems innocuous enough in its little bottle, until you drip some on a nylon jacket and it literally dissolves it, leaving a smoking hole like the acid blood from (i) Alien.  No joke.  Try it and see.  But when faced with the choice between systemic blood cancer and death by mosquito swarm, I’ll take the cancer any day.  I’d seen nature videos of caribou and elk driven mad by mosquitos, drowning themselves in a lake just to escape the horrid bugs, but I’d never really understood it until that day.  They get in your fucking eyes and your ears and your nose, thousands and thousands of them.  The ceaseless roaring hum alone makes you want to kill yourself.

We fished until the sun set.  Faced with the possibility of imminent death from bloodloss, we set about building a monster bonfire and getting very drunk on bad whiskey.  There’s no mosquito deterrent like a serious fire, and we got ours so big and so hot you could see the hungry little shits burst into flame when they got too close.  What few brave bugs managed to bite us shortly died of alcohol poisoning.  Bastards.

Huddled around our tower of flames, we ate our surprisingly good freeze-dried chicken and discussed our plans to terrorize our ‘neighbors’.  Looking out across the lake we could see their fire as a tiny dot on the far side of the lake.  They’d come by earlier that evening to introduce themselves, a tacky husband-and-wife pair with spinning-reel fishing rods and flat Midwestern accents.  The woman said she wanted to come and meet us just in case there was “a bear incident” and they needed assistance during the night.  Her pathetic husband, obviously at the behest of his shrew wife, carried a gigantic can of bear-mace at the ready in his right hand.  Not even in his pack, or attached to his belt, no.  She insisted he have the fucking thing cocked and in hand JUST IN CASE.

Kindly neighbors that we are, we set about formulating a way to torture the fools.  The plan was to cover ourselves in fake blood and run shrieking through their campsite.  We’d have raw meat and other realistic gore hanging out of our rolled-up shirt sleeves.  OH GOD THE HORROR we’d scream.  SO MANY BEARS.  THEY CAME FROM NOWHERE.  Peter, vomiting out a mouthful of ketchup blood onto the side of their tent, would shout WE’RE ALL FUCKING DEAD.  GOD HAS DESERTED US.  He’d then crash into a dead heap while the rest of us ran terrified into the dark woods.

The plan was utterly foolproof except that, since we were backpacking, we had nothing that resembled blood and no raw meat to disguise as severed limbs.  We also found ourselves too drunk after our strategy meeting to safely attempt the hike to the far side of the lake in the dark.  Apparently one bottle of whiskey goes a long way when the drinkers are at high altitude and have lost a quarter of their blood supply to the damned bugs.


Driving through the park on our way back from the mosquito hatchery, sunburned and running a couple quarts low on blood, we found ourselves stuck for an hour at one of the ubiquitous tourist-season traffic jams.  At the time I lacked the energy to be truly upset, but looking back I see that nothing so powerfully embitters man against his modern society as god damn traffic.  A few placid days in the relatively unspoiled backcountry wilderness, just you, some friends and Ma Nature… the first constipated two-lane road you come across on the way home hits you like a slap to the face.

The trouble with Yellowstone is that it’s a complete Disneyland clusterfuck.  The primitive beauty of the place has been so grotesquely transformed in the last sixty years that it’s almost unrecognizable in its current state.  I remember reading about Edward Abbey’s fears for the future of America’s national parks in (i) Desert Solitaire.  I hate to write about writing but he did a much better and more thorough job of explaining it all than I can.  He was afraid the parks would be made overly accessible, mutated into temples of commerce more akin to theme parks than the rugged primordial oases they’re meant to be.  Yellowstone has become everything he worried about to a T and, had he written about Wyoming and Montana rather than the Southwest, he’d be spinning in his grave like a god damn top.  Every major “attraction” in the park is accessible by car and/or tourbus, there are gas stations and airconditioned gift shops and vast parking lots.  Heaven forbid some fat fuck with eighty kids and a XXXXL NORTH GEORGIA CHRISTIAN CHILDREN’S CAMP sweatshirt has to walk more than twenty yards to take pictures of Nature’s Majesty.  While in the park, I met a ranger who told me that a few weeks before  a reintroduced (and flourishing) pack of wolves had killed an elk right on the lawn at Mammoth, one of the larger commercial / dining / parking hubs in the park.  The wolves had brought the elk down at dawn right outside a two-story giftshop and, as the pack made a bloody mess of the dead elk in full view of five thousand tourists, many an angry parent came screaming into the ranger’s office.

“They were completely outraged.” he told me “They said that children are not meant to see such horrible things, and that they feared for the mental and physical safety of their kids.  One lady took down my badge number and said she would write to her congressman if ‘action wasn’t taken’.”

“If only you could teach the wolves to eat fat fuck tourist bitches instead of elk, you’d kill two birds with one stone.”  He looked at me, unsure if I was serious.  I wasn’t sure myself.  “I mean what do they expect you to do?  It’s a park, not a zoo.”

“That distinction doesn’t exist for some of these people.  They want to come, take a photo of each of the big animals for their scrapbook, buy a couple of coffee mugs, you know… And do it all without getting out of their Chrysler.”

“Awful bastards.  Fuck them and the rental RV they rode in on.  Why not dynamite the roads and make everyone pack in?”

“Unfortunately those coffee cup purchases pay my salary.”  The ranger laughed.

The only redeeming quality of Yellowstone as a whole is that, if you have the fucking minimal gumption necessary to get a hundred yards away from the road, you can still escape the crowds.  Yellowstone’s a huge park with a lot of back country trails.  You can hike for days without seeing even one gigantic Mormon family in matching windbreakers.

And so we ended up behind a line of cars for a couple hours while people took pictures of scraggly, bored buffalo through their minivan windows.  Up in the hills a thousand mosquitoes, drunk and fatted on our blood, partied their short lives away, lying in wait for the next group of tourists with sack enough to step off the asphalt.  I fell into a deep sleep in the back of the car while we waited, dreaming pleasant dreams of grizzlies feasting on Midwesterners.


Fishing farther up the Madison, up above Quake Lake, Peter pulled out a full $1000 Orvis rig.  Rod, reel, everything, undoubtedly dropped by some greenhorn turd who waded in too deep and lost his footing.  The thing still had the pricetag on it despite being underwater for a month or two.

The rarely-benevolent Fish Gods have smiled upon him, and now he’s obligated to become a Serious Fisherman despite living in piece of shit Southern California.

Lucky bastard.  All I caught that day was a whitefish so small it looked like bait.

Such are the mercurial whims of the Flyfishing Gods.


Near the end of our trip, we headed into town for a sort of freaky family tradition: pizza and a night at the theatre.

Yes, there is a theatre in West Yellowstone (Population 46).  We’ve attended one or more of their shows for probably the last five summers, and the performances are always surprisingly packed.

The thing about the West Yellowstone theatre is that it’s Mormon.  Mormon as fuck.  Not, like, predominantly Mormon.  100% pure whitebread Latter-Day Mormon; cast crew and audience.  Except us.  The place is run by a Mormon couple who drives their van out each spring to scrounge up ‘talent’ in backwater shitholes like Rexburg, American Falls and Buhl.  They spend a week hitting all the community colleges, then swinging back through the Mormon Cure-Your-Kids-Of-Homosexuality camps up in Sand Point to fill out the roster.  They run anywhere from three to six shows a summer.  Two shows a night + rehearsal, six days a week with Sundays off for Church. Of course.

For the directors it’s a flawless system.  They work the actors like fucking galley slaves; the players have to do everything from set arrangement to marketing to selling candy at intermission.  Literally.  They pay eight bucks a week plus room and board, work them twenty hours a day, and ship them back to whatever hole they came from when the first snows fall in September.  It’s not like the actors will quit.  What else are they gonna do?  Wait tables back in Shoshone with the rest of the BYU Idaho theatre majors?  Go back to the freaky psycho-dungeon torture chambers at the Cure Your Gayness With Jesus compound?  Hell no.  They’d rather do Guys and Dolls three times a day and live a life of theatrical forced labor.

Laura’s fiancee Don came with us to the play and, though we’d all been before, somehow we forgot to warn him that the Playmill Theatre is basically a real-life Twilight Zone episode.  The lights come up and the most terrifyingly enthusiastic white people you’ve ever seen start running around the stage clapping and doing little sing-a-longs and skits.


Peter and I laughed as the unprepared Don grabbed Laura’s arm, wide-eyed with panic.


I tapped him on the shoulder.

“What the hell is going on?” Don shouted over the roar of the small but very participatory crowd.

“Welcome to Crazytown, bro.  Just try not to make eye contact or touch anybody.”


The hambeast next to me, grinning like she’d just stuck her keys in an electrical outlet, clapped her meaty hands together in violent ecstasy.  I looked over at Peter who had two toe-headed brats kicking the back of his chair.  All around us, the Lord’s Flock sang their tone-deaf hearts out.






“I think we’re in hell.”




“I think you’re right.”

They did another short skit, which had the punchline “This coffee is so good it should be a sin.”  Everyone laughed.


The families near us looked at me quizzically, mystified by my sarcasm.  I gave one lady a thumbs up.  Hooray for Jesus.

“You people scare the shit out of me.” I said, but it was too loud for her to hear.

The lights dimmed and the show began in earnest.


There is not much else to tell about our brief trip.  We caught some more fish.  We survived a couple more vicious thunderstorms despite Peter’s tent leaking like sieve.  He was probably miserable but I felt fine in my dry tent.

Montana’s amazing and, if it weren’t under twelve feet of snow for most of the year, it’d be a great place to live.  There’s enough room between you and your neighbor that even if they are militant neo-hyper-Christian survivalists, you can go months without actually seeing them even from a distance.

The downside of trips like this are that they re-sensitize you.  They relax one’s psychological defenses and the true horror of daily metropolitan life reasserts itself powerfully afterward.  Every aggressive hobo and knife-wielding junkie seems just that much more unbearable upon your return.  The thousand mile drive back to San Francisco isn’t as unpleasant as that first whiff of rotting sewer garbage you get upon opening your car door.

We pulled into my driveway at 3 AM after having driven for sixteen straight hours.

“Ah, I must be home.”

“Yeah? How can you tell?”

“It’s foggy, and smells like human shit.”

Home, home again.


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