Missoula

View of Missoula from Mount Sentinel, in Missoula, Montana.I could smell the smoke in the air the second I stepped off the plane. Wildfires in the hills nearby, I’d heard, and the wind had shifted the direction of Missoula. But soon, heavy rain came in, and I found myself driving in my rented car toward my rented room with the windshield wipers on full speed.

I was staying in the basement of a home that had a backyard full of chickens. When I entered the small room where I’d be sleeping, I killed a giant spider first thing, with a hastily grabbed paper towel, and I watched it kick its legs for dear life as it flushed away.

I found a trendy little coffee shop full of hipster students, all plaid and beards and nose rings, and I did some writing, tapping into a story from my adolescence, one about not knowing how to receive. But my mind kept wandering. My entire married life had been just hours from here to the west, just a few hundred miles. I’d passed through Missoula a dozen times without ever spending time here. A quick Google search of the town revealed that no historian was quite sure where the name of the city originated from, that the city boasted over a hundred thousand people and was the second largest in Montana, and that there were two universities and a decent acceptance of the LGBT population here.

Back on the road, back in the rain, I drove north, passing through the city and turning onto a state highway. The clouds clinger to the hills here, soft rolling white against the deep thick evergreen rows, all against the grey sky. It took my breath. The rain washed out all of the smoke and the land felt new. I drove through small towns, one that boasted it’s wide diameter trees on the welcome sign, and soon arrived at a bar-and-grill in the middle of nowhere.

I stepped inside and found everything made of wood, tables and chairs and walls and bar and decor. A few old cowboys in ten-gallon hats and boots sat at the bar with drinks in hands and three 30-something plump women in tight T-shirts and jeans waited behind it. I took a table in the corner, somewhere private, and set out my laptop and a pad of paper.

I moved back to the restroom where a sign hung over the urinals.

“PLEASE

Don’t write or Carve on walls

Or 

Spit Chewing Tabaco in the 

urinals, it plugs them up. 

Thanks…”

I laughed out loud with delight at the sign, so perfect and characteristic. It captured the ambiance of the place better than anything else. I wondered if they meant Tobacco or Tabasco, with a grin, and thought that these things must be actual problems in this establishment to warrant an actual laminated sign.

Back at the table, the waitress, who had a name tag that read “Mayzie” delivered a menu and a glass of water, then told me about the beers they had on tap. I had some light conversation with her and learned she was a mother of four, and I noticed that she didn’t have a ring on her finger, leaving me assuming that she was a single mom.

My eyes scanned over the menu, where everything seemed to be either alcohol or some beef product, with many variations on steaks and burgers in every form. Steak salad, patty melt, twelve different burger options, steak and potatoes, steak and coleslaw, steak and corn. I saw one item on the menu called the Vegetarian, that replaced a beef patty with a portobello mushroom cap, so I ordered that with a side of slaw. Mayzie seemed disappointed, but jotted the order down. A moment later she returned.

“Oh, I forgot. We are all out of mushroom caps. Almost no one orders that. But what we could do is chop up a bunch of little mushrooms and just put them in a sandwich?”

I laughed, un-enthusiastically, and accepted her offer. The sandwich came out thirty minutes later on toasted bread, and it was strictly mediocre, but I was hungry and consumed it quickly.

By then, I was deep into the interview that had brought me this direction in the first place. I was talking with a woman connected to a thirty year old homicide in Utah, a story I was working hard to make a documentary about. It had taken me months to earn her trust, and she was now openly discussing this ancient history that had taken place when she was only 21. She talked freely about her life, even the hard parts, and about the impact of the homicide on her family and path. She talked about the different directions life could have taken her with a mix of pain and clarity, and shed tears as she talked about it.

When I drove home, the skies had cleared, and I wound the same highway curves in the dark. I arrived back at my rented room and did a scan for spiders as I turned the lights on. I showered, then wrapped myself in the covers on the bed for warmth. Outside was silent. No cars, no electric buzzes, no chickens. My brain was struggling to stay awake, buzzing with the experiences of the day and all the new information I’d gathered, but the body won out and soon i settled into sleep, leaving the brain to work out its obsessions with bizarre dreams that flooded my consciousness.

Hours later, the rooster outside crowed, and I brewed coffee, rushing to my keyboard to capture my thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the rabid squirrel

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When I was 22, I woke up one Sunday morning in my small twin bed, in my sparsely furnished apartment in Boise, Idaho, and found a quarter-sized spider bite on my forearm. I remember looking at it closely, wondering why it wasn’t painful. A bite like that should be painful. It was deep red around the edges, and raised and puffy in the middle, with two soft red lines that must have been the teeth marks, like a tiny vampire bite.

I poked at the bite a bit, sitting up in bed, and wondered if it was dangerous. It was sizable. As a university student, I had a mediocre health care plan, meaning the only coverage I had was if I visited the doctor on campus. There was an off-campus plan, but it cost a much higher co-pay, whereas the campus doctor was completely covered. I looked at the medical flyer I had on my desk from the clinic and realized they were completely closed on Sundays.

I looked at the clock, 6 am, I should call my mom for advice, but she would still be sleeping. I had church in three hours, and I was supposed to teach a lesson in Sunday School on the parables of Jesus. Was I in any danger, with the bite this size? I looked down at the floor in my room and, with a small shudder, wondered where the spider was, and how big it was.

I moved over to my desk and grabbed the phonebook, wondering if any medical clinics outside the emergency room were open this early. Then I noticed, right there on the front page, an ad for a call-a-nurse line at the local hospital to discuss medical concerns, free of charge.

I grabbed my cell phone and called up the number. After a two-minute hold, a woman answered. She had a vapid, drawling tone to her voice, and I pictured her painting her nails while she held the phone on her ear, disinterested.

“Hello, thank you for calling the nurse line. My name is Leslie. How can I help you?”

“Hi, good morning. I’m Chad. I woke up this morning with a spider bite on my arm. It–”

“Can you describe the bite for me?”

“Yes, I was just about to.”

“Go ahead then.”

“Well, it’s about the size of a quarter. It is red around the edges, and a lighter color in the center. It’s raised a bit and I think there is a liquid in it.”

“And it was a spider that bit you?”

“I think so.”

“Did you see the spider?”

“No, ma’am. I was asleep.”

“Then how do you know it was a spider?”

“I–I’m assuming it is a spider. I don’t know it was a spider.”

She didn’t change the tone of her voice at all, but I heard her sit up and grab something off a shelf. It hit her desk or table with a small thump.

“Okay, hang on, I’m turning to the bites section. Is it painful?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt at all.”

“Hang on, hang on. Burns, here we go, bites. You said you think it was a spider?”

“Yes.”

“Could you have been bit by a dog?” I heard her turn a page.

“No, it definitely wasn’t a dog.”

“A cat?”

“No! It wasn’t a cat!”

“Could it have been a bat, or a squirrel?”

I sat down in my chair with a mighty roll of my eyes. “A squirrel? You think a rabid squirrel snuck into my room while I was sleeping and bit my arm?”

Her voice took on a tone of impatience. “Look, sir, I’m trying to help you here. There is no need for sarcasm.”

I hesitated for a moment, thinking of arguments. If I stayed on the phone, I had no doubt she would continue running down her list of animals, wondering perhaps if I had been bitten by a snake, a giant mosquito, or a monkey perhaps.

Instead, I hung up the phone and called my mom, who was already awake. She gave me advice to keep an eye on the bite and call her later. Sound, reasonable, and nothing about bats or squirrels.

A few hours later, I was teaching a group of college students in my Mormon congregation about the Good Samaratin parable, and was sharing with them a poem I had written about the scripture. They were all looking down at their papers when I moved my arm just wrong against the desk and felt a puncture. I saw the contents of my spider bite shoot across the desk a few feet, like a tiny water balloon had just exploded. The liquid was completely clear, like water or saline, and had a faint odor.

As the students finished the poem, they looked up to see me gently wiping the desk with a Kleenex, none the wiser.

Fifteen years later, I still have a faint scar on my forearm from that morning’s bite.It isn’t their fault, but I blame the squirrels.