Travels With Steinbeck

Ah, Montana.

Come and ride along with me as I follow the Steinbeck route from Travels with Charley around the U.S. and “rediscover this monster land.”

Montana mountain pass near Livingston.

Montana mountain pass near Livingston.

The Landscape: Okay, perhaps I have been treating neighboring Montana like the proverbial neighbor’s wife who is gorgeous and it’s unseemly to covet, so she is ignored. One can’t ignore Montana while driving across her, and she is lovely. Yesterday’s light  was unlike any I have ever experienced. It was as if it had texture, a golden viscosity like looking at things through amber. Every object stood out distinct from the next. Typically, Montana displays a scene, of which, any western state would be proud—of fertile fields undulating up to tree-covered slopes capped by snowy mountains. But then Montana throws in a meandering stream, a few picturesque cattle, a train laboring up the valley, and an even taller and cloud covered distant peak—all as accessories. Are there flaws? Of course, Butte is a scar and there are way too many tacky casinos.

The Steinbeck Connection: While lingering in Billings Steinbeck bought a cowboy hat he refers to as a “stockmen’s hat” in a letter home. Although that term doesn’t seem to apply to any style today, I described the narrow brim look to Sal at Last Stand Western Wear in Hardin, Montana and she promised to order it for me and send it.  That is in a week or two after she “cooked at the prison and shipped some cattle.”  I commented as I walked out that I hadn’t given her any money. “That’s how we do things here, but there is one thing you can do for me. You can send me a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, I’ve always loved it.”  Sal, if you are reading this, your book has already been ordered. But then, all I have to do is blog and drive.

A tacky touch of the tropics near one of many Montana casinos.

A tacky touch of the tropics near one of many Montana casinos.

Profile: In Hardin, I was looking for the breakfast place where locals hang out. As I entered the Lariat Country Kitchen I saw a bumper sticker on an older long bed pickup that said, “Only The Dummer Vote OBummer.”  I want to talk to that guy, I thought, and sure enough, I did. Tom Conroy is a warm, articulate older gentleman now retired from ranching and politics. He had four terms as a state legislator until, “the liberals moved in from California and the governor at the time pushed me out.” Tom was wearing a black cowboy hat and black vest and jeans. He appeared to be nearing 80 years of age.  He is a weathered handsome man with a dry sense of humor and a love of history. “Come to my ranch in the Pryor Mountains (near Billings) in the summer and we’ll talk history,” he said. His wife Colleen died from breast cancer ten years ago.  She had a grandfather who was Crow Indian and started a magazine called “American Indian Journal” aided by cowboy author Will James. The grandfather even sold James some of his property in the Pryor Mountains. A billionaire now owns the property, Tom said. Tom feels “the current administration is the worst thing to happen to America since 9/11/01 and we may never recover.”  I accepted Tom’s kind invitation to visit his ranch next June. With any luck we can hold the conversation to our mutual love of birds and animals and western history, and steer away from politics.

Max fts perfectly under the Bambi's comfortable table (Bob loves it too).

Max fits perfectly under the Bambi's comfortable table (Bob loves it too).

The Dog: I realized when I walk Max in crowded campgrounds, which are often filled with dogs, especially the type that can fit in the ashtray of large motor homes, I keep my thumb on the brake of the expando-leash in case I have to throw the brakes on a sudden charge at another dog.

Sweet Notes: My sister Jeanne has been virtually riding along, but now she plans to ride along for real—across Texas. This feels right because Steinbeck visited his sisters in Monterey, and Elaine was with him for a long stint in Texas.  It will be great to have my Sis ride along.

Thank you for riding along. Let’s talk again soon, shall we?

Greg Zeigler

Travels with Steinbeck: In Search of America Fifty Years Later

Copyright © 2009


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  1. * Dave Hall says:

    Wow, this trip is going fast. Hope it seems that way to you too.

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 7 months ago

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