Terrain.org Essays.





Silent Hills

by Russ J. Van Paepeghem

Sometimes an experience bears down on me in hard and direct pursuit, and it takes an angle I’ve never seen before, electric and fierce. I recognize this much, and I begin a chase to understand why I’ve been haunted—especially in this new, oblique way—and then suddenly, like a tiny consequence of an explosion, the way a leaf releases from a branch, the experience I know becomes at once familiar and yet somehow smoky, and then I am moved to clarity, or peace, or at least made to take a deep, cleansing breath, say “hum,” as if unimpressed, and keep it all to myself. The process is very much like learning that your grandfather—the one who rests in his chair most days—knows how to and can still waltz.

I’ve had many gifts like this, and some emerge from the stories of other people, like this one Pat Williams once told me: It was 1985 or ‘86, and Pat was in Libby, without a driver to accompany him down those long Montana highways. By ‘83, the debate around wilderness was pretty fierce in places like western Montana, especially in logging communities like Libby, where the timber industry met the boundaries of wilderness with buzzing saws of displeasure, if not hatred. And so by ‘86 the place was near riotous. No new wilderness, the loggers said. They believed it would lock up potential lands and prevent harvest of the very marketable larch rooting through the soils.

Pat had pulled in to a grocery store to pick something up between meetings, and so there among the coolers and aisles and the locals who picked from their shelves, a hunched old woman caught his eye while she stared at him a moment.

What I mean to speak of is the notion of wilderness...“You’re Pat Williams,” she said.

He thought about saying “No, I just look like him,” but the sternness of this woman’s face told him not to. “Yes, ma’am. I am,” he confessed.

“Come here a minute, I want to talk to you,” she said. And she lead him slowly to an aisle, where beside the Cheerios, which were level with her shortness, she faced him. She told him to come closer.

“I don’t know what this wilderness thing is about,” she said. Then she pointed again, toward Pat’s chest. “But I want it over with.”

As a congressman in the U.S. House since ‘79, Pat had pushed for wilderness designation in several bills over his career, and Libby residents weren’t afraid of letting him know their opinion about these efforts, whether he asked it or not. In fact, later, in ‘88, Libby residents hung a large effigy of Williams from a crane, the cable of which noosed around Williams’ neck. When the woman spoke to Pat in ‘85, he’d already proposed or endorsed four bills, and one was still alive in the House.

“My husband is a conservationist,” the woman said to Pat. “And my son is a logger.” Pat understood the gravity of the two factions that Libby nursed. “They haven’t spoken for months because of this wilderness stuff.” She began to collect herself, and then carried on, as if she’d just recalled something: “And I’ll tell you another thing: I want peace under my roof.”

I mean not to talk about Pat Williams, what he did for Montana as a representative, or what he did for the nation in terms of wilderness. What I mean to speak of is the notion of wilderness and its relationship to people, like the relationships this woman in Libby had upheld as a wife and mother. Wilderness is personal. Some say that “wilderness” is a cultural product, something we thrust out of our minds like a brick mold or a piece of art. If this is true, wilderness could be collective, then, as a place that we know as well as an idea that we share. And it seems clear enough to me, to those who have relationships with the hills, that wilderness behaves very much like a person. Sometimes it sneaks up on us and lets us know it’s still around, still the boss, and that we are still bound to it, not it to us. And sometimes it slinks into our homes, like the prodigal son returning, and it either unites or destroys, for the sake of maintaining itself or your life and family, you don’t know. Wilderness is a close relative, whether we like it or not, and it seems always to divide, always to unify.

We can only speak of our own lives, if we mean to be true, and my own experience with wilderness is one born in Idaho, in a valley nearer to Reno than Libby, where a river called the Boise slides around itself on a course toward the Columbia. When I was growing up in Idaho, I often forgot to appreciate where it was that I lived. I took shortcuts on many things. For example, when I changed it, I poured spent engine oil over the dirt, maybe because I was lazy, maybe because I didn’t care. On occasion, I drove my pickup like a lunatic through the sage deserts along the Snake and shot squirrels with scoped .22s as if those creatures were God’s gift to me the marksman. As a family, we ate venison and beef and bought our vegetables and our eggs at the IGA, but not for too much. And we didn’t care for those goddamn Californians buying the Miller place, then the Wagner place, then June’s place, as if subdivisions were God’s gifts to developers. Sometimes it’s perspective, sometimes it’s modeling, but we always behave strangely when we are young.

One night, coming home late from a date with his girlfriend, my brother drove his Chevy pickup into a fireplug. Smacked it square with the right front tire, doing about thirty, he later told me. While the plug didn’t blow up, our father did when Bud came home a few minutes after ten, the tense summer sun finally yielding to a horizon of cool alfalfa by our doublewide.

Dad was tough. And when he saw the crinkled up fender, steel hanging out the well like a loose tongue, he hardened to a point as dense as cobalt. He bulled through the screen door the way he would with a load of firewood in his arms, and he met my brother beneath the sodium light by the carport. I don’t know what was said between the two of them, and I might never. There was pointing at obvious things. Talking. Two red faces, and a cool breeze pushing down from the feedlot, north of us.

A line was drawn in the driveway that night, directly between father and son, and neither man would step to cross it for months. And the two became silent, not speaking unless of absolute need. I don’t recall them even directly facing each other, not for a very long time. It was too much.

The morning after the fireplug, my brother jacked the pickup under the three-sided carport, which doubled as our woodshed, and began tearing into the jumbled front end of the passenger side. I went out to watch, to help if I could.

Peace among families is only a hiatus...A bent rim leaned against one wall. A rusted disc lay flat like a heavy hat atop a paper towel. The caliper of the brake hung from the frame, and he’d strapped it away with zip ties. His tools were laid out like a surgeon’s: a U-shaped pickle fork; a chrome breaker bar; long and short well sockets, ¾” drive; hammers; punches; and a measuring tape. Even in high school then, he knew what he was doing, but the damage of the fender and the twisted steel clasped to the leaf spring made me bold.

There was no need to say what I did, and his terseness in response, telling me that he knew he’d f’d up too, was enough to draw a line redrawn between him and me. I apologized, and he set a punch to float a hanging piece of steel with a quick rap of his wrist.

“It’s all right,” he said.

It seems to me the things that divide families are the same things that bind them. In the case of my family, wilderness was one thing that took apart and pieced together with identical fervor. We could go to the hills and behave as if no conflict existed between son and father, between brothers, between Mom and Dad. Then home, away from wilderness, and we’d go plumb wacky over a cross-threaded bolt or an unfed horse in the stall. There was no distinction between the hills and wilderness, not as we lived it. If it was outside, it was a place of peace and place of conflict both.

And so we used no federally designated wilderness area, even though the Frank Church was within a comfortable driving distance. Instead, we hunted and lived in the national forests around the Boise Valley, most especially north of it, where a butte called Thorn Creek raced succession above timberline to stick out as if a bald head, and thus our name for it and the ridges which clothed it was Baldy. For two weeks most every year, the men of my father’s family lived in canvas tents, lit with hissing Coleman lanterns, and at night cooked steaks, aged and thick, atop a griddle that swallowed the entire lid of a sheepherder’s stove, fueled by the windblown timber of what my uncles simply called “conifers.” In the mornings, those men drove out before dark, sent themselves up and down draws that they had named, in pursuit of the occasional elk, should they be so blessed. But mostly, they looked for themselves. And safely, what happened on the mountain, according to an unchallenged pact, stayed on the mountain.

On Baldy, my brother and father could and did talk. My uncles would fight about which draw was which, or who got lost what year. On a good year, in the afternoon, if a spike was killed early, three shots in sequence having signaled grandpa to bring the horses, with rich quarters hanging they’d swill Pomerelle wine, a stash of which was buried in camp at the base of one huge fir. Baldy became an expectation. So as not to be forgotten, it made its way into the relationships at home. Baldy got in the way of marriages, and Baldy, for some, was the only way those marriages remained.

Peace among families is only a hiatus from the forces that pull and repel with unequal vectors; these are the forces, I mean, of our personalities. There’s no way to determine where these forces will ever equal among families, or even if they will. But in the hills, our family seemed to do well enough to cope with each other, maybe to even out, which was more than we could say of ourselves at home. We all needed the hills, and perhaps only that was clear in our lives.

Before I fully understood the grasp the hills had on me, I moved to Montana because there was no repelling force that I could see. In short, I had no family there. In my mind at the time, I’d believed that none of my family knew the state even existed. I went to college in Helena, and there I learned to divine the inviting and yet resistive energy of a new character to me: the landscape.

Winds would blow hard across the flats of the Helena valley. The streetlights, as they still do, began blinking at 9:00 at night, reminding me that traffic and life does slow down. And in the mixture of winds and driving around, I had the license to think about the people of Helena more freely, as if those signals wouldn’t tell me when to stop and when to go, what was right or what was wrong to think. I could breathe without the dust of cowshit or the mustiness of a trailerhouse impeding my lungs. My parents and their things were not part of my calculus, at that time, at least so I thought.

In Helena, the taut sun hung long in the late summer skies. Peering into the face of those sunsets, I learned that my counterpoint was in the hills—really, truly in the hills—and I’d be happy nowhere else but in those hills, where I was repelled and welcomed by hard winds and this new landscape. I grew up in the West, yet I had to travel north and east to find the West that was as comfortable to me as a place like Baldy.

My great grandfather’s name was Remie. The Latin tells us that Remie stems from the word remigius, which means a “rower” or “oarsman.” In a way, I suppose my great grandfather was an oarsman, because when he was the age I’d moved to Helena, he dipped his paddle in the Atlantic and sailed by steamship to the States. After some years in Idaho, he named his third son Remie, Jr., and that man named his first son Remie Joseph III, and that man named his two sons R.J., as if it couldn’t quit. And through the generations, neither could the family quit Idaho. We’ve been there since 1911, which strikes me now as a very long time.

My father worked at the feedlot full-time for most all his life...What makes my great grandfather’s story so compelling is that it’s my story. And my father’s story, to some extent. And perhaps my brother’s story, even lesser. Because instead of fostering, through patrilineage, the prospect of being a physician or an attorney, Remie passed on a legend of silence, a trait us Vans pack very well. We are silent by nature, and we are silent about the events of our own histories. This is, perhaps, why Baldy exists as a member of our family, because our histories didn’t have to be explained in the company of such people or landscapes. They just knew us.

When Remie left Belgium, he began his own willful silence. Not just because he’d left his younger brothers and sisters behind and had no one to talk to, but because he’d absconded from his own doings, a heavy heart as baggage. And it is not so much that he left the town of Ospelar and began a silence that is gripping. It was that his own nature was bound to be repeated, over the years, without his even knowing or intending, perhaps simply because he didn’t talk about it. Through that silence, through the stuff of history since, the events of his life were repeated.

The ship’s manifest of the S.S. Antwerp states that Remie was single, of Belgian descent, traveling with Jeannette, his brother Gus’ wife, and would be en route for Boise, upon porting through customs. Jeannette, with four children in her care, would travel with him. They did all this. And he took up work. Somewhere in the lore, I’ve heard that he returned to Belgium, for reasons no one in my family seems to know or understand.

Over a strange span of seven years, it wasn’t until 1918 that Remie shows up again on paper, in the form of a marriage license. In short order, at the age of 27, he was wed to a fifteen-year-old from a logging community called Cascade and took to homesteading the way a strong draft horse puts a shoulder to the shafts. He worked hard and then moved his young family to the small farm town of Meridian, where he raised cattle and kids for the rest of his life.

There is something magical about history which allows those living it to bury under its sheaves the things they choose not to discuss. Even the loudest of reports can be muffled under layers of cattle receipts, heavy square licks of mineral, and dull moments riding highways in the cabs of pickups. Our family sailed itself over these seas of suppression, predicated on those moments of mistaken calm. We created the conflicts by ourselves, but we inherited them, too.

Our family’s bread and butter was not bread and butter at all, but beef. Remie, Jr.’s first steady job after the war was with Armor Meats, where he bought cows at sales all across southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. His early career was in the rig, driving, and while his first son, my father, got to ride along with him on occasion, Grandpa would later scheme to hang up his keys for good and partner with a Basque businessman, to build a feedlot outside a community called Star. The venture was successful, and over the course of nearly fifty years, the feedlot hung around, finishing cattle for butcher.

My father worked at the feedlot full-time for most all his life, having grown up with it since he was nine, and yet he refused management of the lot, on the grounds that he didn’t want the responsibility. He wouldn’t elaborate. He just didn’t want it.

Every other week, my father got one weekend off, and once a year, those two weeks for Baldy; he rowed this cycle for twenty-five years. My brother earned a summer job at the feedlot. I was never asked to, and I never did ask to work on the lot, though part of me said I should, if only to know the feeling of the grime and the faces of the cows, or where my father’s silence came from. My grandfather left the feedlot when he was about sixty, and my father left when he was 48, not long after he and my mother divorced in the year I left Idaho, and thereupon was the lot’s decline. In March of 2009, they locked the gates of the lot for good, one of my uncles having cowboyed there for as long as my father had worked, the last Van still on staff, the one to fasten the lock. There’s no doubt in my mind that these attachments to the feedlot are from the same, complicated place as the attachments I have to the hills, the same attachments I have to my family. The feedlot, the hills, my family—all are strange and revolting, and yet they give me no better medicine when I return to them. They are all mixed up. And though it doesn’t sound so, our mothers and sisters and wives were mixed in it, too.

To call Remie I’s departure from Belgium a flight might be more accurate. And perhaps he rowed against currents he did not expect. When he left Belgium the first time in 1911, though the manifest shows otherwise, he was married, and with children. Why he’d left his wife seems reasonable from today’s perspective—that he needed to make money in the prospect of America. But when he got there, I suspect he found something different, in the hills that bordered the then-rural Boise. In the mountains north. All of it in the West. I suspect he found a place he could call home, a landscape that gave him calm no matter what his history. Whatever it was, it was strong enough a force to incite the consideration of a new life. And he found my great grandmother, Susie.

Eighty-seven years later, my father left Boise, as if my own leaving at the same time signaled the exodus of something like his grandfather’s flight from Belgium. Dad left his family, brothers and sisters, packed everything he owned in a Ford flatbed towing a fifth wheel, and sailed. Across the passes of the Cascades, he settled into the old fishing port of Everett—the terminus of the Great Northern Railway—he bought a boat, and he began a new life with a new woman further West. You could say he relived a past very similar to his own.

When I left the valley, I was engaged to be married. I went to Helena first, to be in the landscape I’d visited once, but I went to live without the woman to whom I was engaged. After a year, I then tacked West, my face into the idle talk of uncertainty, following her. We married, and I depended on the hills. For reasons as puzzling as they must have been for the Remies of my life, the experiment ended. I left, and though geographically I went on that slope north and east, I was returning somewhere West. Driving a Chevy I bought off my brother, I landed again in Helena. And the hills comforted me home. And over much time, I began a new life with a new woman further west, a woman who understood what it was to depend on a place. You could say I lived out my father’s history, who lived out his namesake’s. It took time and boldness and missteps.

Where she'd come from doesn't matters as much...There’s no simple reason why we’ve done what we have. But silence was key in all the directions we went, just as the hills were always a father or a brother or a son to us men. Perhaps we’d have done less damage had we talked to our wives rather than gone hunting. Maybe we’d all still be married from those first attempts. Or, with even less damage still, perhaps we’d have never married at all. Maybe we needed the journey? I suppose an answer could be that we wanted the place long before we ever wanted anything else in our lives, that such longing to cross the seas for the hope of the hills is deeper than what we could know of ourselves. Still, something lingers. It’s as if up each draw on Baldy we left behind some story. Every story has its lesson, has its real memory. Each story follows to a ridge, where you can finally see.

Once the wind rended itself against the window cracks of a home I was working on outside of Boulder, Montana. It was just a bead of a home dropped on the plains, and since it had first materialized in the early 1900s, it had weathered the threatening storms of arctic fronts having dropped their way down from Canada, met the sweltering heat of Boulder river summers. When I came upon it, the sides of the home were ripped away, leaving the ribs exposed to the elements that ate them, like the keel of a ship in dry-dock.

Insulators had been contracted from Helena or Bozeman to spray expanding polyurethane into those cavities, leaving the structure to look like a bale of yellow marshmallow banded with studs, and while the work of sheathing the house had yet to be done, despite the bitter winds of that winter, it was warm enough in the structure to keep a mother and her infant girl comfortable. While the woman’s husband was out checking cows, the winds swept snow against the unprotected sides of that house.

My work was inside, adding ductwork to a new gas furnace. This entailed cutting holes in the floors upstairs, and piping sheet metal to those holes in the open joist bays of the basement, connecting these runs to the trunk line of the furnace. The work took me upstairs several times. I’d spot a hole by drilling a long bit into the flooring, run down to measure the bit’s relationship to a joist, return to the top to cut the hole, then down again to install the duct. In the process, I learned this mother had an advanced degree in humanities, her husband in agronomy, from Montana State. They were renting. This was their first winter in the house. And that she was inspired by the rolling hills, by the mountain range called the Elkhorns in her living room window.

It seemed strange to me at the time that a couple of such education would choose to live so far away from town, but by choice, I could see why. I realize now that her fascination with the dry winds surrounding her was the comfort she thought necessary for her own life. Where she’d come from doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she’d come. Conflict, yes, with the elements. And peace bearing down on her in every angle she looked. For her, peace was silence.

Under that roof was the silence us Vans bore most all our lives. Not in the potential of the family gathered round the pine table, and it was not near the hearth, nor in the spectrum of joys one could experience beside such strong timbers. It was the stillness of knowing there is a landscape that waits for us, a place that we know perhaps more intimately than we know ourselves, a space which quells the fear that we have ever done anything wrong.


Russ J. Van Paepeghem lives and writes in Missoula, Montana. He teaches writing at the University of Montana.
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