Day 6: Fire and Friendship in Missoula and Seattle

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That haze you see in the background? Those aren’t clouds, that’s smoke. This is somewhere near a rest stop outside of Missoula.

In the weeks before I set out on this journey, I kept dreaming about the cities on my itinerary; what their skylines would look like, which museums I would visit, which restaurants and coffee shops I absolutely had to hit up. I envisioned it as a series of individual experiences, bullet points of adventure that would somehow serve as a shortcut to “getting” whatever place I was in. (And indeed, that’s largely how I’ve heretofore presented my experience on this blog).

And yes, those landmark explorations have been fun, occasionally sublime even, but what’s really been affecting me about this trip are the moments in between. The long hours of solitude, the time spent hanging in coffee shops waiting for my devices to charge, or bumming around a main street looking for a place to piss, of hanging out in a park or riverside or any public space I can use up for free, where I can pass the time reading or writing or just thinking as I struggle to endure the sun’s torture.

Up until last night, every place I’ve gone was a completely new city for me, a place where I didn’t know a soul. I became used to not communicating with anyone; the longest conversation I had before last night was with a middle-aged man at Minnehaha Falls, and even then the sole basis of our two-minute dialogue was a shared affinity for the Chicago Cubs.

Perhaps the simple act of not talking forced me to listen more. Having spent such a great deal of time in public spaces without putting myself forward, I’ve become more attuned to the minutia of the human experience. I catch the little moments; the two college girls ripping on a mutual friend, the mother saying to her toddler, “What sound does the cat make?”, the old Liberal Boomer couple complaining about disengaged, cell phone-crazed Millenials. I watch and listen to all of this as a passive observer, a field anthropologist who strives to examine the environment without engaging with it.

In certain moments like that, I really do feel like a Ghost.

All of which serves to reinforce how more I now appreciate meaningful human contact, which thankfully I’ve been able to experience in the past 24 hours.

I spent all of yesterday and last night in Missoula, a city currently beset on nearly all sides by wildfires.

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The fires seemed to be on everybody’s mind. The baristas at Zootown Brew joked about it, the newspapers fretted. You could see it in the air hanging above the mountains; it reminded me of the smog in L.A.

I spent most of the day hanging around at Missoula’s various riverside parks, as well as the Fort Missoula historical site (much of which is also outdoors – why do I keep ending up outside during the hottest parts of the day?). The riverfront is quiet and clean and peaceful. I went down there for a noontime picnic of tuna and V8 and watched the kids play with their little surfboards.

Later I went to the Fort Missoula Museum, which is small but possesses a wide array of artifacts (some 40,000 in all) from all eras of Montanan history. My favorite exhibit was a feature on World War I propaganda:20170731_143723

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The genesis of the Gluten-Free Craze?

It was entertaining enough, and I loved trying to imbibe each artifact, each document in its original context, to somehow hack at the fruitless endeavor of reconstructing the past.

Later I met up with Rachael, my host for the night. A friend of mine since high school (and also a member of the kickass Missoula-based riot grrl band Blaine Janes, which you should check out) , Rachael was one of the many kind souls who unexpectedly reached out to me when I announced the Ghost on the Highway Tour a couple weeks ago. She and her roommate were generous enough to accommodate my sweaty, half-baked ass for the night as we chatted over beers on a warm Montana night.

The topic of forest fires came up again and I learned of Montana’s “Fire Culture,” something I never even imagined as a thing. It’s an ever-present threat out there, a cruel fact of life that commands a great deal of attention, research, employment, and controversy. I was utterly engrossed to hear about it. It’s one thing to skim through articles in a local paper, which I’ve been half-heartedly doing, but quite another to hear it first-hand from locals.

Driving West on I-90 the next morning, I had an opportunity to glance at the impact of a timberland inferno first hand. About 45 minutes outside of Missoula I saw a sign that said, “Fire Activity Ahead, Do Not Stop”. Out beyond the peaks one could see big clouds of smoke creeping over the landscape. The clouds eventually blocked out the sky (forcing my car’s auto-lights to come on) and the smell engulfed everything. It smelled like a campfire but fouler, danker, more sinister; a campfire of death.

It was a smell I actually recognized. Five years ago my parents’ house burned to the ground. It was, obviously, a massive tragedy, our own personal 9/11. I arrived at the scene when the flames were still roaring and I’ll never forget the smell; that nasty, carbonic stench of destruction and hatred. This forest fire had a similar smell, the smell of life being melted away. (Still, I couldn’t resist the urge to incorporate it into a selfie).

I arrived in Seattle in the middle of the afternoon. Seattle is unique among the destinations of the Ghost on the Highway Tour in that it is the only city I’ve actually lived in. I went to the University of Washington, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Getting High and Not Really Taking Shit Seriously.

One of my good friends from that era was a guy named Brandon, and he was kind enough to host me for the first two nights of my stay in the Emerald City. He patiently put up with me as I dragged my various scattered bags of clothes, toiletries, books and device chargers into his Capitol Hill condo. We hung out on the roof, where the evening sky was filtered by a smoky haze not unlike the one in Missoula (this one happened to originate in British Columbia).

Throughout the night we talked about our lives; we’re of similar age and it seems we’ve both had recent experiences that have forced us to re-evaluate our own situations, our own goals. Maybe everyone goes through something like this, or maybe it only happens to smart, self-aware, introspective people. Either way it’s enormously helpful to be able to share and relate to these experiences, and to do so from a place of honesty and acceptance.

With both Rachael and Brandon, I hadn’t realized how hungry I was for human connection until I finally had a taste. This blog is published under my name, but Ghost on the Highway belongs to a wide range of people, people who have and will provide support and comfort and encouragement. No man is an island, and I could not do this without them.

And yes, that includes you, dear ghostling.

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