Dennison tells stories worth remembering in book on Montana politics

“This book is not a memoir.”

That’s the first sentence in the preface to Mike Dennison’s recently published book, “Inside Montana Politics: A Reporter’s View from the Trenches.”

Dennison is too good an old-school reporter to think that his personal story is worth telling, but I’m happy to say this book is in fact a memoir, at least in part, and it is also a good, compact history of Montana politics over the past three decades.

Some of that history is painful to read, particularly the account of the fall of the once mighty Montana Power Company. Under the guise of “deregulation,” Montana lost its historically cheap energy, MPC morphed into a telecommunications company that went bankrupt, and tens of thousands of former employees and average investors saw their nest eggs disappear.

We also read of former Gov. Marc Racicot, who helped engineer that deregulation and went on to head the Republican National Committee, and of his successor as governor, the late Judy Martz, one of the most comically inept politicians in the history of the state. There are also extended profiles of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and current Sen. Jon. Tester.

In each case, Dennison tells the stories clearly and well. I was an editor and reporter in Montana during the period dealt with in this book, but I rarely covered statewide politics and issues, so on almost every page I either learned something new or was reminded of something I had forgotten.

And because it is partly memoir, despite Dennison’s demurral, we learn not only what happened, but what role Dennison played in the unfolding stories, how his reporting shaped events and how the leading figures responded to his work.

One vastly entertaining section details efforts by Racicot to undermine Dennison’s reporting and to question his facts and his motives. Dennison’s then-editor at the Great Falls Tribune, Jim Strauss, responded in writing to Racicot at one point, and finally, tiring of his attacks, basically told him to buzz off.

Mike Dennison

I’ve known Dennison since the late 1970s, when we were in journalism school together in Missoula. I thought I’d followed his career — he has worked for the Associated Press, the Tribune, Lee Newspapers and, since 2015, the Montana Television Network — fairly closely, but it took a collection like this to make me really understand how good and how important his work has been.

What set his work apart over the years was that alongside his rock-solid reporting, he also occasionally wrote first-person columns that added depth and perspective to his reporting. It is one thing to write dozens of well-researched stories on a single topic. It is a real public service to step back and show what all those facts mean. Allow me to quote at length the opening to a column Dennison wrote in 2006:

If you read last weekend’s interview with former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, you can be forgiven for choking on your coffee when you read this statement on utility deregulation:

“If somebody said to me today, would you be deregulated or not deregulated after what you’ve seen occur, I’d still say we should be deregulated,” Racicot told a newspaper editorial board.

That’s right. The governor who supported and signed Montana’s infamous 1997 utility deregulation bill and resisted attempts to undo the damage says if he had the chance to do it all over again, he would.

The former governor, now the head of a national insurance lobby, also opined that “there are a lot of myths surrounding deregulation and what happened” and that doomsday scenarios are “not supported by the evidence.”

Sorry, but the only mythology on deregulation I heard that day came out of Racicot’s mouth. And if it’s evidence you want on the folly of utility deregulation, it’s easily found.

It was satisfying to find out that this column provoked a flood of favorable comments from readers, the biggest response Dennison ever received. It’s a bit dicier these days, in the era of “fake news,” for reporters to stick out their necks and add context to the news, but as Dennison shows, when done correctly it is invaluable.

There is more, much more, in this book, including Dennison’s account of a deadly riot at Montana State Prison, and the long, sad story of a man falsely accused of a terrible crime.

The best story in the book, which Dennison has never told until now, relates how the late Sen. Conrad Burns went to bat for a friend of his, a liberal environmentalist who was busted for growing pot, and whom the feds tried to severely punish for his refusal to snitch on anyone else.

It complicates the one-dimensional image a lot of people had of Burns, and, as with virtually everyone in the book, you learn more about the human behind the headlines.

I hope a lot of Montanans read this book. If you live near Billings, you can buy a copy directly from Dennison this Saturday, when he will be at This House of Books in downtown Billings from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

Why so blue, Billings?

Story by Ed Kemmick. All photos by John Warner.

There’s so much to do in Billings. There really is. Really.

The music scene is amazing, for one thing. It seems like there’s a great new band making a debut every week, and we have singer-songwriters doing work that should be heard nationally. We’ve got a punk-infused music and arts festival coming up on its seventh anniversary, and this summer we’ll host the third annual Big Sky Gypsy Jazz Festival.

The food scene is dominated by young chefs who share a taste for fresh, local ingredients and innovative menus, and they won’t charge you an arm and a leg. We’ve got seven craft breweries, three distilleries and a cider mill. Last summer saw the launch of the Montana International Film Festival, and our local independent movie theater recently took over operation of the grand old Babcock Theater in the heart of downtown Billings.

On top of all these wonderful things, unfortunately, we also have one big problem: We have an inferiority complex. Sometimes I picture Billings as the big ungainly schlub on the playground, wondering why the girls are so blind to his charms, why there is so much injustice in the world. Maybe we have never shaken the attitude of one of our earliest residents, Parmly Billings, son of the railroad executive for whom the town was named. The father, Frederick Billings, never lived here, but his son did, and in 1886 Parmly wrote a letter to his father.

“I should advise a young man,” he wrote, “who was in search of some place where he could be thoroughly lonesome, have no friends, that is of course intimate ones, where vice in its worst types was omnipresent, where board was high, and grub proportionally poor, to go direct to the town of Billings.”

Poor Parmly. Poor us. Now the general complaint is that despite our enormous progress since the early days of lonesomeness and bad grub, we are looked down upon by the people of Missoula and Bozeman, and not particularly liked or respected by the residents of other, smaller towns in Montana.

One of the most common manifestations of this inferiority complex is a kind of defensive cheerleading that I hear constantly in Billings. I heard it during the opening of the film festival, I’ve heard it during performances by local bands, and I’ve heard it over dinner at several of the hot new restaurants. It never seems to be enough to comment on how good the music is, or the food, or how promising some new event is. No, in Billings there is almost always the reflexive, chip-on-the-shoulder addendum:

  • “Can you believe this?  Missoula and Bozeman think they’ve got good restaurants. There’s nothing like this in either town!”
  • “God, I wish my friends in Missoula could see this. They’d never believe it. Billings! We’re the best-kept secret in the Northwest.”
  • “Listen to these guys. All you ever hear in Bozeman or Missoula is how many amazing musicians there are. Ha! The music scene in Montana is right here, right now.”
  • “I wouldn’t live in Missoula. I really wouldn’t. Or in Bozeman. We’ve got everything going right now, and better yet, we don’t have to live with those goddamn snobs.”

And keep in mind that they are saying these things to other people who live here, as if they needed to be convinced … which of course they do, as do the people who keep issuing these defensive utterances. How can this be? How did the biggest city in Montana, the financial capital of a great inland empire, an efficient, no-nonsense, can-do metropolis buzzing with money and culture, set in a spectacular river valley an hour’s drive from the highest mountains in Montana, come to think of itself as inferior to Missoula and Bozeman, and somehow lacking the cool factor of even smaller cities like Livingston and Butte?

The town was named for Frederick Billings, a railroad bigwig whose statue sits in front of the Western Heritage Center, originally the Parmly Billings Library.

Apparently, so I’m told, because people from other, ostensibly more charming parts of Montana, and even people from other states, regularly bash Billings for being crass, money-grubbing, conservative and irredeemably unhip. Billings, the big little cowtown, they say. Billings, the capital of West Dakota. Billings, Spokane writ small.

Alexis Bonogofsky is a native of Billings who raises goats and sheep just outside of town. She is also a photographer, a wilderness advocate and a blogger. One of her most-talked-about posts, which she put up in the summer of 2018, was titled, “I get it, you don’t like Billings.” In it, she told how, shortly after going to work for the National Wildlife Federation, she had a short conversation with a woman from the federation’s Washington, D.C., office. It went like this, according to Alexis:

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Billings,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said and laughed.

Then her apology started. She had assumed I would agree with her and that we’d laugh and then I’d explain to her how I had escaped from a shitty town.

I have heard similar stories in Billings, though I can’t honestly say I’ve encountered such sentiments personally. Except, of course, when I used to harbor them myself. I’m from Minnesota, you see, and I’ve lived in Bozeman, Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and, since 1989, Billings.

In Missoula, the first friends I made in Montana taught me to look down my nose at Butte. They said a lot of bad things about Butte, best expressed by the single word made famous by President Donald Trump: shithole. So, yeah, I was young, eager to fit in, and I came to think of Butte that way. Until I finally visited the place. It took about two minutes to drive from the interstate to the lower slopes of Uptown Butte, and within two and a half minutes I had arrived at the opinion I still hold today: that Butte is one of the oddest, wildest, most interesting burgs in the whole country. I would later learn that Butte people are not defensive about their town, not the way Billings people are, at least. If you don’t like Butte they simply figure you’re uninformed, as I was before that first visit, or too dumb or too puckered-up to get it. Basically, screw you and the horse you rode in on, an attitude that only increases my esteem for the place.

As for Bozeman, I’ve never quite been able to figure it out, but I have never actively disliked it. In some of the swankier parts of town I pick up distinct, creepy Stepford vibes, but I’m willing to admit that my own lack of perfection, my feelings of inadequacy in the face of sleek beauty, may skew my perception. My only gripe with Missoula is that it is no longer the town I knew as a young man, for which I can’t quite forgive it, but that’s not really Missoula’s fault. Well, and there’s the weather. Once you escape the months-long damp blanket of a Missoula winter, it’s hard to imagine going back, the splendor of spring and fall notwithstanding.

Then there was Billings. God, I used to love to hate this town.

It didn’t help that for years I came here only to play hockey. Like everyone else who wore a Missoula Flying Mules jersey, I didn’t like anybody on the Billings team, in fact passionately detested several of them, and felt an equally strong dislike for the city they represented. How could anyone live in a place always wrapped in the stench of several oil refineries, a beet-processing plant, stockyards and a meat-packing plant? “Smells like money,” we used to say, and we were given to understand that the people of Billings said the same thing, but not as a joke.

Even after I moved here with my wife Lisa, a native of Missoula, it was only because we were desperate to get back to Montana after a few years away. Somehow, we figured, we’d work our way out of Billings and get back to the “real” Montana. Thirty years later we’re still here. The problem initially may have had something to do with inertia. It’s not so easy to pull up stakes and try something new when you have three young daughters. But somehow, at some undefinable point, we no longer wanted to leave Billings.

We can remember when the first post-Folgers coffeeshop opened downtown, and then the second and the third. We were here when the first brewery opened its doors, the first real bakery, the first restaurant to advertise “locally sourced food.” Before we quite knew what had happened, Billings had somehow become an interesting, attractive town that met virtually all our needs. We even saw evidence of that long-hoped-for phenomenon: young people who had fled from Billings within days of high school graduation were filtering back home, finding jobs and settling down. Yes, there were hipsters who found Billings sufficient.

Despite all, most people in Billings just can’t seem to accept this city for what it is, preferring to lament what it lacks—a “real” college with a “real” football team, for one thing, or a cachet that carries some weight outside of Montana, or a status that would no longer allow people in Bozeman and Missoula to look on us with pity or disdain. The attitude of Billings people toward their town might be best exemplified, I think, by the reaction to two magazine articles, published decades apart.

The first was a piece in the June 22, 1998, issue of Time magazine, which used Billings as an example of the meth epidemic then raging. It became gospel truth that the influential news magazine had dubbed Billings—depending on whom you were talking to—“Crank City,” “the crank capital of America” or “Crank Town U.S.A.” In 2005, when I was a reporter for the Billings Gazette, writing my own series of stories about meth, I hunted down a copy of the article to see exactly what title had been bestowed upon Billings. As it turned out, Time had done no such thing. There was only a passing, lower-case reference, at the very end of the story, to one of the meth heads heading back out into “crank city.” In context, it appeared to refer only to the murky world where crank was sold and used, not specifically to Billings.

My reporting did not destroy the myth, not even close (which says something, too, about the real power of the press). People wanted to believe in our notoriety and they still do. I guess the thinking was that if we could not be as desirable as certain other Montana towns, then by God we’d be a hell of a lot worse.

A billboard in downtown Billings celebrates, not quite accurately, the city’s selection as a pretty swell place by Outside magazine.

The other magazine piece was more recent. In September 2016, in its annual “Where to Live Now” competition, Outside picked Billings as the “adventure town” of the year, beating out 15 other contenders including Seattle, Denver and Boise. It was a good article that neatly captured some pretty cool things about our humble town, but the most common reaction I encountered was, “Huh?” Missoula and Bozeman have been so frequently celebrated that when the attention was suddenly, unexpectedly turned on us, it almost seemed as if there had been a mistake, or that maybe we were the butt of a joke.

Then came a more problematic reaction. The Billings Chamber of Commerce put a big billboard on the side of a building at the main entrance to the downtown, trumpeting the Outside article. What the billboard said, though, beneath the logo for the magazine, was “Best Town Ever.” Under that, as a hedge, it did say “2016,” but it is difficult to put any other meaning on the word “ever.” And while it might seem petty to call out the Chamber for a mere gross exaggeration, it exemplified our lack of confidence, our fundamental lack of belief in ourselves. A town that really thought it deserved the title of “best town of the year” would have no need to pretend that it was the “best town ever.”

I would like to propose that the city’s apologists and its overactive boosters are as wrong about Billings as its detractors. It is my opinion—and I think it helps to be a transplant, rather than a thin-skinned native of Billings—that we have fully as many opportunities to make good lives here as anywhere else in Montana. And being the biggest city in the state helps, in that we instantly have more opportunities than almost anywhere else in Montana, with the possible exceptions of, once again, Missoula and Bozeman. And we have one more thing.

Dennis Taylor, who served as the Billings city administrator around the turn of the millennium, and who had held similar positions in Helena and Bozeman, once made an observation about Billings that has always stuck with me. We were talking about the rapid growth in Missoula and Bozeman, and in places like Whitefish and the Bitterroot Valley. Billings, meanwhile, had been chugging along with a growth rate of roughly 2 percent, year after year after year. That was the kind of growth that made it possible to expand with some deliberation, to deal with sprawl by tweaking existing regulations, rather than always playing catch-up.

The result, Taylor told me, was that Billings was the only major city in the state that still felt much like the Montana he had known when he first came here in the 1970s, looking for some breathing room after serving as a frontline Marine in Vietnam. It’s been almost 20 years since Taylor made that observation, but in many respects I think it still holds true. There is an indefinable something in the air here, beyond the smell of roasting sugar beets, that always brings me back to the Montana I knew when I first came to this state, about the time Taylor did. It has something to do with the fact that Billings is still, despite the profusion of doctors, engineers and lawyers, recognizably a blue-collar town.

And it is, like no other big city in the state, still in the heart of Indian Country, and in important ways inextricably bound to its Native American past. It’s no use pretending that old prejudices aren’t still here as well, but we continue to make progress in the face of contrary winds on the national level. At least we don’t sugarcoat the problem, or wish it away.

So, yes, we have all those things—well, a good many of those things—that people move to cities for, with wide-open wildlands just a few jumps away. And on top of that we have a living legacy, hard-earned and stubbornly if unconsciously held onto, that other cities lack, which we ought to celebrate. But in keeping with the values of an earlier Montana, we should celebrate it quietly, with an absence of bluster, without apology, and without feeling the need to measure our city against any other.

I would love to live here long enough for the Chamber of Commerce to offer up a defiant slogan to the rest of the world, something like “Billings: Take it or leave it.” Or this: “Billings: We can’t complain.”

I won’t hold my breath.

This piece originally appeared in the Summer issue of Montana Quarterly, which does not post its stories on the web but gave me permission to reprint the article here. You really should get yourself a subscription. It’s a hell of a magazine.

Southern Rambles

First day in the Ozark Mountains, March 4.

Arriving home a little more than five weeks ago, at the end of a 10-day, 4,900-mile driving tour of the Deep South, I was planning to write a day-by-day account of the journey. Two days later, I jumped off a curb, tripped on a snare-like wire band and fell hard onto my right shoulder in the middle of South 27th Street. It was several days before I could use my right arm at all, and by the time I could type, awkwardly and somewhat painfully, the trip seemed too distant to attempt creating a connected account of it.

I tried a few more times, still wanting to tell the story, but with no better luck. I finally gave up. Then, two days away from having surgery for my busted-up shoulder and the prospect of being one-handed for at least the next six weeks after that, I decided to write something anyway, but instead of a chronological account I thought I’d just compose an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink compendium and get it posted before going off to see the doc.

(I realized a bit later, after reading the above, that there was a simpler explanation for my halting attempts, followed by a frenzy of writing: after 40 years in the newspaper biz, I needed a deadline, a reporter’s daily enemy and best friend.) And please remember my haste and my bum shoulder if you encounter any odd mistakes or typographical errors.

The Background

This trip, like my two other major adventures since shutting down Last Best News last July, started with an electronic teaser. My unforgettable trip to Galax, Virginia, last August was set in motion by an email from Jim Hagengruber. A few months later his brother, Matt Hagengruber, introduced the possibility of an Eastern European jaunt with a Facebook message that said, “Want to come to Bulgaria? Check your email.” That trip is what inspired me to start this blog.

My Southern Rambles were sparked last summer, too. I had said, in an email to my old friend, Tom Mischke, that he and I ought to take another trip together one day soon. In September, Tom wrote back and said: “As far as that road trip is concerned, we should look at heading to the Deep South sometime in February, I think. I can make some inquiries and see if we can find some old backroad forgotten towns where old-time music can be found. I have connections down there.”

That was all I needed to hear. Tom later sent me a proposed itinerary, starting on March 3, when he would fly into Denver. I would drive down from Billings to pick him up, after which we would motor on to Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans and Austin, then back to Denver. And somehow I conceived the notion that Tom had set up the whole trip explicitly because he knew of my love for roots music and my interest in the Civil War, and that he was also aware that I had never been to the Deep South. But as we talked on the first long leg of our journey, from Denver to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I discovered that Tom, a former talk radio host now making his living doing podcasts, hadn’t had any such thoughts. He had simply come up with a trip that would last about 10 days and would allow him to bag enough interviews for two or three of his monthly podcasts. Though he was delighted to hear it, he had no idea that I had never been to any of the cities on our itinerary.

And so off we went.

OK, Some More Background

I had had more than a few adventures with Tom, but this would be our first real expedition in years. In 1987, we took our last freight train trip together, from Havre to the Twin Cities. A little earlier in the ’80s, we made a couple of trips to Chicago, for long weekends of blues, booze and debauchery. There was a crazy St. Patrick’s Day in Butte, and then there was the time Tom suffered an inland shark bite (it’s a long story) on a boat on the St. Croix River in Minnesota.

On this Southern trip, I soon realized that those days were dead and gone, that we were both a lot older, and that the chances of one or both of us being jailed, or bitten by a shark, were quite slim. This realization was driven home by a taxi driver in New Orleans, who was taking us back to our motel one night at 9:30. “Oh,” she said, “your mothers would be so proud of you.”

Laissez le bon temp rouler.

Through my windshield, right outside of Billings on my way to Denver.

The Weather

When we first started talking about this trip, I said to myself, “Early March. Great. It’ll be spring by then.” Fat chance. February was miserably cold and snowy, and when I left Billings early on March 1 (I wanted to get to Denver a day early, to do some exploring), it had stopped snowing only a few hours earlier and it was 8 or 9 degrees out.

So yes, I was more than ready to head south. And so, apparently, was my guitar. I had put strings on my Martin the day before my departure, and as I was putting it back in its case, I noticed a big crack running from just under the bridge almost all the way to the bottom of the guitar. I called Hansen Music and talked to guitar maestro Art Eichele. He told me that this dry (in terms of humidity) Montana winter had been hell on guitars, but that I was probably safe to take my Martin on my travels. Given that I was going south, into the land of high humidity, he said, the crack might even seal up on its own. Funny thing is, I had visited an ear, nose and throat doc earlier the same day, and he said a trip to the high-humidity south might be just what my allergies needed, too.

It snowed heavily in Denver on March 2, and after I picked Tom up early on the 3rd, the roads were pretty nasty almost all the way to Arkansas. The highway in Colorado had also been sprayed with some kind of molasses-like de-icer, which sheathed my Subaru Forester in a heavy coat of rippled brown goo. It looked like a prehistoric sea creature.

The good news is that once we made it to Arkansas, the weather was better than we had any right to expect. In fact, a recurring feature of this trip was that almost every morning, as we consulted our phones, we were advised that colder, wetter conditions lay ahead of us, and almost every day the forecasts were wrong. Except for a few short, light showers in New Orleans, we had beautiful conditions almost all the way.

At the very end of our trip, though, as if to admonish us for our complacent belief in our good fortune, Tom and I drove into the eye of a “bomb cyclone” in Colorado Springs. I don’t think I had ever heard that term before, but there we were in the middle of one, in all its incredible, savage fury. Earlier that day, driving through the Texas Panhandle, we had encountered winds so powerful that more than once I thought I was going to lose my windshield to the huge tumbleweeds that kept crashing into it. What a day: unprecedented winds and then a blizzard so intense that a city of half a million people virtually locked all the doors and rolled up the sidewalks.

In Colorado Springs, beyond which the interstate to Denver was closed, we found a motel and then, though Tom thought I was crazy, I set off through the storm to find a grocery store. The streets were covered with ice and snow, traffic lights were not working or were invisible behind packed snow, cars were in ditches and wedged into drifts everywhere we looked, and some streets were blocked by enormous evergreen trees that had been toppled by high winds. But we found an open Sprouts grocery store, by God, and next to it an open liquor store. They might have been the last open stores in the whole city.

That was on March 13, the day Tom was scheduled to fly out of Denver back to St. Paul. We heard that every runway at the Denver International Airport had been closed, for only the third time in the airport’s history. We also heard that the storm had officially been declared the worst one in the history of Colorado. That was actually a hell of a consolation. If you’re going to be inconvenienced, it’s nice to experience something historic.

But look at me, going on and on about the goddamned weather. Let me just add this: The next day, we heard that the interstate would probably open sometime in the afternoon, and with thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of cars and trucks backed up, who knew if we’d get to Denver in time for Tom’s new flight. But then we looked at a map of Colorado on our phones and saw that every highway east of Denver was closed, but every highway west of it was open. So, about mid-morning, we made a dash for it, taking a scenic highway through the Pike National Forest. Incredibly, it appeared that only a few other motorists had made the same discovery, with the result that we cruised along on nearly empty roads that weren’t even carrying much snow. We found out that little new snow had fallen. It’s just that very high winds (gusts of 97 mph were recorded at the airport in Colorado Springs) made it seem like there was heavy snow.

And so we got into Denver in plenty of time, and I had plenty of time to get to Casper before crashing for the night. The next morning, Friday the 15th, was incredibly beautiful, with blue skies, fresh snow and perfectly clear highways all the way to Billings. Of course, here we are five weeks later, still waiting for spring.

The Places

As I said earlier, I was mostly covering new ground on this trip. Basically, everything east of Denver was new to me. The Ozarks were as beautiful as advertised, with endless rolling hills, thick stands of trees, slow-moving rivers and widely spaced houses. I really knew I had arrived in the Ozarks when I saw a sign for the Jethro Baptist Church.

We spent our first evening in Memphis on famous Beale Street, a two-block-long string of bars, restaurants and stores that is lively and attractive — but also a tad too precious for my blood, what with all the neon and the self-conscious signs touting the street’s distinctions. But that in a nutshell is modern America, which finds it hard to preserve something without giving it a Disneyland sheen and monetizing its history. On Beale Street, I tried to overlook the sheen and the money, glad to see it preserved in any case.

The Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

Tom had several interviews set up for the next day in Memphis, so I had the day to myself. After breakfast, I went straight to the National Civil Rights Museum, which I hadn’t even known about a few days earlier. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated in 1968. Before going into the museum, I stopped at a plaque in front of the balcony on which King was standing when he was killed. To be there, and then to go into the museum and look from that balcony to James Earl Ray’s sniper’s roost in a boarding house across the street, and then to go to that boarding house (also part of the museum) and look through the roost to the balcony, is a powerful series of experiences. The whole museum is a model for remembering history, for putting a visitor into direct and uncomfortable proximity to tragedy. The museum itself tells the story of the Civil Rights movement memorably and well, but to be at the site where King was killed brought on a flood of thoughts, regrets and what-ifs that will stay with me forever.

I also visited the Blues Hall of Fame at the Blues Foundation, which is across the street from the second half of the Civil Rights Museum. It was small but had some cool artifacts, including a dress worn by Koko Taylor, Otis Spann’s piano and one of Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonicas.

I kept thinking of what Tom had told me on the drive out of Denver — that on earlier trips to Memphis he had learned that the assassination of King threw a heavy pall over Memphis for years afterward, a pall that was not lifted until after the death of Elvis in 1977. The almost immediate and unceasing flow of tourists to Memphis, and to Graceland in particular, opened the city’s eyes to its important place in the evolution of American music, Tom said, and that realization led to a music-centric renaissance that continues today. That explains the preservation of Beale Street, and also its unfortunate glitz. It’s definitely a city I need to visit again.

Next up after Memphis was Vicksburg, Mississippi. We had been planning to skip that town and head straight for Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of my musical hero, Jimmie Rodgers, and home of the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Tom thought he could do a podcast based on interviews at the museum and talking to me, a Yankee from the other end of the Father of Waters, about his fascination with Southern music in general and Jimmie Rodgers in particular.

But Tom isn’t much better at planning than I am, and it wasn’t until we were in Memphis that we learned the Jimmie Rodgers Museum was closed for the summer while it moved into a new location in Meridian. So, back to Plan A, which was a visit to Vicksburg.

Once again, Tom had work to do, so I spent the late morning and early afternoon at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Despite my abiding interest in the Civil War, here I was at the age of 63 finally visiting my first Civil War battlefield. Better late than never, though, and Vicksburg was a fine place to start, because it was not the site of a single battle, but of a protracted siege with operations on land and water. The driving tour stretches out for 16 miles, and if you were to stop and read every historical marker, and take a gander at every historical monument, it would take many days.

The Vicksburg overlook: lots of water.

The highlight for me was finally finding the spot overlooking the Mississippi River where the Union Army and Navy made a dash under the city’s heavy guns, previously thought impossible, leading to the long siege that ended with the surrender of Confederate forces in Vicksburg. That surrender effectively cut the Confederacy in half and sealed its fate, though it would take nearly two more years of fighting for the inevitable end to come. Standing on that point was anticlimactic. I referred above to the Mississippi River, but the river changed its course a few years after the war, and the waterway visible from the overlook now is actually the Yazoo River Diversion Canal, which doesn’t sound quite so stirring. Adding to the confusion was that this had been a very wet spring, and looking west from the military park there was standing water almost as far as the eye could see.

We headed for New Orleans the next day, leaving early enough to spend a good part of the day in Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. McKinley Morganfield, whom the world would know as Muddy Waters, was born in nearby Rolling Fork but spent his early days in a sharecropper’s cabin just outside Clarksdale, on the Stovall Farm (or, as Muddy always called it, the “Stovall Plan’ation”). It was at that cabin in 1941 where Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy. When Lomax played back the recording for Muddy, he said, speaking of himself, “Damn, that boy can play the blues!” I like to think that it was at that moment that Muddy decided to leave the farm and head North, where he would revolutionize the blues, and by extension American popular music.

Unlike Beale Street, Clarksdale is still quite sleepy and almost untouched by glitz. Even the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and which we visited only during the day, looks just seedy and haphazard enough to be authentic. We had breakfast at a tiny little joint with 1950s kitchen tables and mismatched chairs, then visited a few other establishments.

Enticing window display.

The highlight was a visit to Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, owned by Deak Harp, a New Jersey transplant and wonderful character. The store was closed when we first saw it, but after spying a massive collection of defunct harmonicas in a window display, we knew we had to stick around. Tom and I both play the harmonica, and if the club down the street is ground zero for the blues, Deak’s joint is ground zero for the blues harmonica. Deak sells, among other things, customized harmonicas, which come with a lifetime warranty. If the reeds go bad, he’ll repair or replace them. They’re pricey, at $250 a pop, but I am going to own one someday soon.

Deak also gave us an ear-shattering demonstration of his skills, simultaneously banging out one-chord hillcountry blues on an electric guitar while playing Chicago-style blues harp on a harmonica rack attached to a microphone. At one point, Deak went to move a wooden sculpture of a harmonica player from inside the shop to the sidewalk out front. Tom asked about it and Deak said it was made by a friend and was supposed to represent him. “But I asked him,” Deak said, “where’s the fucking air bag?” As we looked on quizzically, as the sculptor must have done, Deak patted his ample belly and added, “You can’t playing the fucking harmonica without a fucking air bag.”

My brother and his wife, John and Pam, visited Clarksdale a few years back and heard some great music, which we, alas, did not have time to do, but for Deak’s brief performance. But we heard that Clarksdale, like Memphis, has gone all in on music. The small, sleepy town now has live music somewhere every night of the year. I’ll be back.

What can I say about New Orleans? I feel like everybody else I know has already been there, and I have some friends, including Tom, who’ve been there many times. So I’ll keep it short.

Bourbon Street, a week after Mardi Gras, was so crowded and crazy that I can’t imagine what it would have been like a week earlier. As it was, it was like a mile-long spring break, with legions of mostly young partiers roaming up and down the avenue clutching wastebasket-size glasses of cheap beer and long green plastic containers of highly sweetened but potent liquor mixes. We poked our heads in a few establishments, absorbing as much ear-bleeding music as we could stand before plunging back into the crowd of revelers.

At one point we finally found the kind of place that New Orleans used to be famous for: small, ornate, full of quiet people listening to a jazz band jammed onto a tiny stage. The band featured a phenomenal clarinetist, a remarkably large drummer and a blind pianist/singer. They ran through all kinds of standards, occasionally joined by other musicians, including a couple of brass players from Germany, who fit in seamlessly.

Our favorite club in New Orleans. That’s Tom on the left, with the glasses.

The next morning we had breakfast coffee in Jackson Square, where I listened to a large group of horns and percussionists playing for tips. Everywhere we went that day we saw crowds of people in green, festooned with shamrocks and leprechaun hats and all the rest. There was even a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a week early, and a bus that had been converted into a rolling Hibernian party, complete with seven or eight beer taps on one side. That night, a few blocks off Bourbon Street, we saw the same clarinetist, at a much larger bar, leading a whole new group of musicians. What a town.

After New Orleans we high-tailed it for our last stop, Austin. We got in pretty late on the 10th, to stay with one of Tom’s sons, Mac. The next morning, after dropping Tom off for another interview, I got stuck in downtown Austin for about an hour and half, thanks to road construction and South by Southwest, the giant hipster convention where people talk about the future of the future, or something like that. Later, having given up on cars, I rented a bicycle and rode all around Lady Bird Lake. Billings is always talking about “aspirational” cities: I’d recommend Austin, or at least its trail system.

On our second night there, Tom opted to hang with Mac and his girlfriend on their deck, so I set off alone again. First stop was the Congress Avenue Bridge, where enormous numbers of bats have taken up residence. In the right conditions, more than a million bats come flying out from under the bridge at dusk, a spectacle I had wanted to witness almost as much as I wanted to see “Austin City Limits” live. Well, it was a bust, mostly. I can’t remember now why it was a bad night for bats, but it was, and only a few thousand of them flew out — on the other side of the river from where I was.

Though the bats barely showed, I was entertained by a squadron of pigeons that made an appearance just before sundown and kept flying in formation over the bridge, going back and forth from one side of the river to the other again and again. At first I thought the pigeons just wanted to watch the bats themselves, but as time went on, I got the impression that they were friends and associates of the bats and were doing all they could to entertain us in lieu of the normal show. But no one seemed the least bit interested and the pigeons, increasingly frantic, as if sensing the futility of it all, eventually veered off and disappeared. As did I.

I made my way to Radio Coffee and Beer, which had been recommended to me by Matt Fockler, a great singer-songwriter who had spent some time in Billings and used to live in Austin. He told me some friends of his would be playing that night. It turned out to be a bluegrass jam, more or less, with members of three or four different bands playing in different configurations on an outdoor patio. The music was great and I met a few of Matt’s friends, including Bob Sokol, who recorded some of Matt’s songs. (Note to Matt: Release that album!) I also had an amazing drink — an Old-Fashioned mixed with cold-brewed coffee. I know, it sounds almost toxically hip, but damn it was good.

And that was that. We left the next morning for Denver, into the howling maw of the bomb cyclone.

The Accommodations

I wouldn’t normally even write about this, but we stayed in such a variety of places that I have to say something. For my two solo nights in Denver, I stayed in an Airbnb a couple of miles north of Mile High Stadium. My host was Tony Achilles, who said that was his real name. It made me wish my name was Ed Agamemnon. Mr. Achilles had a beautiful little house, full of his fine paintings, and I ended up spending a lot of time talking to him.

In Fayetteville and Memphis, Tom and I stayed in Airbnbs, with less pleasant results. Both our hosts were hilariously anal, asking us to read pages and pages of rules, expectations and prohibitions. In Memphis our host was somewhere in the house, we knew not where, so we crept about like mice in slippers, desperately trying not to annoy her. By the time we left Memphis I told Tom I just wanted to get a motel where I could be loud and messy.

We found that in New Orleans. Our motel there was almost comically lacking in basic amenities. I mean basic: two beds but not a table or a single chair. One overhead light, over near the door instead of centered on the ceiling, and the worst breakfast spread I’ve ever seen. Motels competing with Airbnbs remind me strongly of newspapers confronting the web: cut costs, eliminate traditional services and downgrade the ambience, then hope you can, by some miracle, draw people away from the competition.

This is what Tom needs to create a podcast. He would lay out all his gear every night before bed, taking inventory.

Hanging with Tom

Given that we drove almost 4,000 miles in 10 days (I did 1,100 miles by myself, from Billings to Denver and back), we spent nearly as much time in the car as out of it. Mostly the miles flew by. Tom and I had seen each other only sporadically and for short spells in recent years, so we had no end of things to talk about, music in particular. Both our lives revolve around music, playing it, listening to it, learning more about the people who make it. My “study” of roots music has been haphazard at best, derived from a few books, magazine articles, lots of liner notes and listening to radio stations with informed, talkative DJs. Tom has delved into it much more deeply in the course of his career, especially since taking up podcasting. Most of the interviews he set up for this trip were music-related, including one with a longtime associate of Jerry Lee Lewis, in Memphis, and another with a young musician from Uganda, flown to Austin to do some recordings on the strength of one viral YouTube video. (The Jerry Lee Lewis podcast is already up at The Mischke Roadshow, and well worth your time.)

Tom and I also share a love for the past, not so much for specific previous historical eras as for a milieu that predates the modern era of strip malls, chain restaurants and homogenization. We both love what Tom called, in that early email, “old backroad forgotten towns.” But my passion for earlier times, I found, is considerably less intense than Tom’s. With me it’s a bit vague and general, exemplified by the cartoonist R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America.”

With Tom, it is a ruling obsession. He told me that when he can’t get to sleep at night, he lies in bed and imagines himself in a particular scenario, usually rolling down a two-lane road in a 1940s or ’50s car, visiting towns and meeting people from an earlier time. I don’t think it helps him fall asleep; it’s just that if he can’t sleep, he rather live in his imagination for a while rather than in the modern world. I’m sure that’s why we both loved Clarksdale, which is just too small to have changed much over the years.

I also realized on this trip that I seemed to have reached the age where it is enough just to sit back spongelike and absorb impressions and images, without having to engage any more than is necessary. It’s easy to sit back when you’re traveling with Tom. He was already an accomplished raconteur before he decided to take up raconteurship as a career, first in talk radio and then as a podcaster. Tom can talk to anyone and generally does. His technique, or M.O., is to overwhelm a stranger with questions or a stream of talk, so that before a person has had time to wonder whether he should be talking to a stranger at all, he and Tom are interacting like old friends. I found it fascinating to hear all those conversations without going to the trouble of having instigated them. 

It also helps that Tom is, to a greater extent than anyone else I have ever known, oblivious to superficialities like race, age, gender or economic status. Most of us can strive to ignore, or at least to minimize consideration of such distinctions, but with Tom it’s as if the distinctions don’t exist. He is simply fascinated, deeply, incurably fascinated, with people, and he approaches everyone with the same degree of openness.

One more thing I realized, shortly after our trip. I had bought the latest issue of Harper’s magazine, which contained a tribute to the late Philip Roth by his friend Benjamin Taylor. In it, Taylor asks, “Is the quick of friendship here, in finding the same things lastingly funny?” My answer would be yes, as evidenced by the number of times Tom and I found ourselves laughing uncontrollably on this outing, as we have so many times over the years.

Miscellaneous Observations

— I wish I had a recording of our conversation with the ancient owner of an ancient gas station in Memphis. The place looked almost deserted, the gas pumps did not have digital displays and the old gent’s “office” looked like a museum of mid-century artifacts thickly coated with dust. I couldn’t get a pump to work, and when the old boy came out to help, Tom explained that I was from Montana. “It figures,” was all he said.

— In New Orleans, I was sitting on a wall in a park when a big, fat rat came scampering past. He didn’t see me until he was right in front of me, a foot or two away, and when he did he paused, raised his two little front legs and sniffed in my direction before dashing under an electrical box. He poked his head out from under it, evidently planning his immediate future and still sniffing. I moved slightly and he withdrew his head and vanished. I had almost hoped we’d get to know each other better. He looked as playful as a dog. It might have been the gin.

— In Memphis, we heard a great harmonica player, who was fronting a band of much younger players, including a female lead guitarist who might have been in her early 30s. She would take a town like Billings by storm.

— At the Blues Hall of Fame, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica was a Seydel, a brand I had never seen before. I thought maybe it was some kind of high-end alternative to the Hohner, the standard and nearly universal brand. Deak Harp, in Clarksdale, told me no, and don’t bother buying a Seydel. But why did Charlie Musselwhite use a Seydel? I asked. “Simple,” Deak answered. “Seydel gave him free harps.”

— At a brief stop in Natchez, Mississippi, we learned about something called the American Music Triangle, bound by a “Gold Record Road” that runs from Nashville to Memphis, then down through Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Natchez, Lafayette and New Orleans, then back up to Nashville by way of Jackson, West Point, Tupelo and Muscle Shoals, among other places. We saw a map listing all the great bluesmen, jazz artists, country musicians, Cajun fiddlers and others born in the Triangle. Damn. I’ve already got the Crooked Road in Virginia on my must-do list, and now here’s another.

It’s a good thing I’m retired. I just wish I wasn’t so old.

West

Rebecca West and ‘history in flesh and blood’

When I shut down Last Best News on July 1, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the freedom I had decided to give myself. I did have two notions, though: I wanted to leave myself open to the sort of adventure that prompted me to start this blog, and I was finally going to dive into some of the big, fat, unread books sitting on my bookshelves.

First and biggest on the list was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue that takes a deep look at the history and culture of Yugoslavia, or of those countries that for most of the 20th century were gathered under the banner of Yugoslavia. The book was based on one long trip and several shorter ones that West (that’s her, above), an Englishwoman, made to Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s. It was published in 1941, after the country was subjugated by Nazi Germany, and it has the most tragic dedication I’ve ever read: “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

The book, all 1,200 dense pages of it, sat on my shelves for so long that I could no longer remember where I’d first heard of it, or when I had bought it. But I plunged in, and it didn’t take long to see why this book was considered a masterpiece. I was about 300 pages into it, in mid-October, when Matt Hagengruber emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in going to Bulgaria and Latvia for the State Department—the adventure referred to above—to talk about media literacy and other journalism-related topics.

That trip would have been amazing under any circumstances, but it’s hard to describe how exhilarating it was to be reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon while I was in Bulgaria, which shares a border with Serbia and Macedonia, two of the countries that had been part of the Yugoslav federation. Bulgaria is also on the high road to Turkey, the seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which contributed so heavily to the violent fracturing in that part of the world. And Bulgaria, itself under the heel of successive empires for thousands of years, had also occasionally invaded and controlled portions of Yugoslavia.

At the beginning of my overseas adventures this fall, I attended a reception in the residence of Eric Rubin, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. I have always been something of a book boor, so I had no qualms about asking Rubin, minutes after meeting him, if he’d ever read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. “Of course,” he said, and then went on to recommend other books about the region. The first one he mentioned was Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, which I had read when it was new, in the mid-1990s. I remembered thinking it was a good book, but of its substance I could recall almost nothing, a sadly familiar situation.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was back home and almost done reading Black Lamb, I was looking for another book on my shelves when I came across my copy of Balkan Ghosts. I opened it for the first time in years and the memories came flooding back. Kaplan opens the first chapter with a quote from Rebecca West: “I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” Kaplan went on to say many things about Black Lamb, including the statement that during his travels in Yugoslavia, he would rather have lost his passport and his money than his copy of the book. Most significantly, he said it was West’s book that drew him to Yugoslavia, resulting in his own great book about that country just as it was descending into the wars and atrocities that unraveled the federation.

Lamb

“Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” in the original two-volume edition—not the one I have, unfortunately.

I knew at last where I’d first heard about this book, so belated thanks to Robert Kaplan for that long-ago recommendation. I am writing about the book here, I guess, as a way of paying it forward, as a way of urging you, dear reader, to get your own copy of the book and find out why Kaplan and I and a lot of other people treasure it so highly. You could start reading it tomorrow, or you could do as I did and wait 15 or 20 years. It will always be readable and relevant, so it really doesn’t matter.

It’s hardly possible to give a quick summary of this book, which combines travelogue with ancient, medieval and modern history, together with extended forays into religion, philosophy, feminism, linguistics, architecture and painting. West also has a great novelist’s understanding of human nature and motives, painting full portraits of numerous individuals with a few quick strokes.

But there is one thing above all that she wanted to do with this book, as she wrote near the end of it. She said that nothing in her life “had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia,” and that what she learned there seemed to be more important than anything else she had ever learned.

“This experience,” she writes, “made me say to myself, ‘If a Roman woman had, some years before the sack of Rome, realized why it was going to be sacked and what motives inspired the barbarians and what the Romans, and had written down all she knew and felt about it, the record would have been of value to historians. My situation, though probably not so fatal, is as interesting.’ Without doubt it was my duty to keep a record of it.”

Her record-keeping is valuable because as an observer and reader she seems to have noticed and remembered every detail. I sometimes wondered if she was one of those people who could get by on four or five hours of sleep, because she must have spent many hours at the end of each day writing down her thoughts and observations. And then all these travel notes and stories were blended seamlessly with the fruits of her wide reading. Her “bibliographic note” at the end of Black Lamb lists more than 60 books in English, French and German that were “most directly relevant” to her own book.

West spends 50 pages on an account of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the start of World War I, an account as notable for its compression as its narrative power. Other historians might have been capable of that piece of work, but then West goes on to deliver a strangely powerful addendum that no other historian would have dreamed of. That story is about a sister of Nedyelyko Chabrinovitch, a young Serbian who made a failed attempt to kill the archduke with a bomb before he was killed with a pistol by Gavrilo Princip.

The sister’s long story revolves around, of all things, a perfectly hideous dress and pair of shoes that her father made for her on the occasion of her being chosen to give a recitation at a prize-giving ceremony at her school. “By the instructions of my father,” she told West, he had a tailor make a dress that was “far too big for me, so that I should not grow out of it for years, and it even had deep hems, that felt like planks, so that the skirt would be long enough for me when I was a grown woman.” As for the shoes, they were a pair of boots made “immensely large for me so that I should not grow out of them, made so strongly that if I had walked through a flood I should have come out with dry feet.” You can feel every molecule of horror and embarrassment felt by the young girl, who did not dare express her feelings to her father.

The point of the story is made clear a bit later, when it appears that Chabrinovitch’s father was such a cruel tyrant that the son’s attempt on the life of the archduke might have sprung less from Serbian nationalism than from hatred for his father. It is a thread of history that few other historians would have noticed, and fewer still would have thought to speak with the sister. As West herself says explicitly, “It has always interested me to know what happens after the great moments in history to the women associated by natural ties to the actors.”

In a similar vein, who but West would have noticed, and then written about extensively and with great brilliance, the intricate embroidery on the clothing of peasant women in Yugoslavia? In Skopje, Macedonia, attending an Easter ceremony at an Orthodox church, she notices a woman who “was the age that all Macedonian women seem to become as soon as they cease to be girls: a weather-beaten fifty.” She also notices that on the sleeve of the woman’s sheepskin jacket there was “an embroidery of stylized red and black trees which derived recognizably from a pattern designed for elegant Persian women two thousand years before. There was the miracle of Macedonia, made visible before our eyes.”

This is the set up for a two-page reverie on Macedonian history. West says the peasant woman, given her age, had lived through the end of “Turkish maladministration,” with all its attendant insurrections and atrocities, followed by the Balkan wars and the Great War, with outbreaks of typhus and cholera between them, followed by more insurrection and unrest and mass killing. “She had had far less of anything, of personal possessions, of security, of care in childbirth, than any Western woman can imagine. But she had two possessions which any Western woman might envy. She had strength, the terrible stony strength of Macedonia; she was begotten and born of stocks who could mock all bullets save those which went through the heart, who could outlive the winters when they were driven into the mountains, who could survive malaria and plague, who could reach old age on a diet of bread and paprika. And cupped in her destitution as in the hollow of a boulder there are the last drops of the Byzantine tradition.”

And so, because West noticed everything in the course of her travels and her reading, she wrote and wrote and wrote, even though, as she wearily says at one point, she is producing a book “which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.” It is long not only because of the breadth of West’s interests and knowledge, but because few authors ever loved a digression as much as West did. Here is a sampling of asides:

♦ “For the Montenegrins are a race of heroes, but since the Turks have gone they have nothing to be heroic about, and so they are heroic with their motor cars. A Montenegrin chauffeur looks on his car as a Cossack or a cowboy looks on a horse, he wishes to do tricks with it that show his skill and courage, and he is proud of the wounds he gets in an accident as if they were scars of battle. It is a superb point of view, but nor for the passenger.”

♦ “Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

♦ “Whatever our belief in the supernatural may be, we all feel that Christ was something that St. Paul was not; and it is impossible to imagine Christ hurrying, while it is impossible to imagine St. Paul doing anything else.”

♦ “If there is one certain difference between the sexes it is that men lack all sense of objective reality and have a purely pragmatic attitude to knowledge. A fact does not begin to be for a man until he has calculated its probable usefulness to him. If he thinks it will serve his purposes, then he will recognize it; but if it is unwelcome to him, then he will deny it.”

♦ “Over her bed hung an immensely enlarged photograph of herself when young, which showed that she had indeed never been beautiful, that my husband had been right, she had always had the long-faced vivacity of not the best sort of horse.”

♦ “There is no town I know where an open door more invariably discloses a sensuous and crafty garden; and the cats—I apply here a serious test of civilization—are plump and unapprehensive.”

But maybe you are thinking that West is too brilliant, that her book really is too long, that no reader could possibly absorb a fraction of it. That is probably true, but I don’t think it matters. This is the kind of book that ennobles the reader in the process of reading, that gives the reader so much pleasure that its length is anything but a demerit: you might find yourself wishing she’d go on weaving her spell forever.

At one point we are introduced to a friend of West’s named Militsa. Born in Serbia when it was part of Hungary, she was the daughter of a man of letters, and from her childhood she knew Serbian, German, Hungarian, Latin and Greek, later adding English, French and Italian. She had made a deep study of the literature of all those languages, West said, and “She talks with the brilliance of a firefly, but her flight is not wandering, it is a swift passage from one logically determined point to another.” Once, West showed another friend a letter that Militsa had written to her, and the friend said, “Really, we are all much safer than we suppose. If there are twenty people like this woman scattered between here and China, civilization will not perish.” That comes close to describing the effect West had on me. Just knowing that someone so intelligent and civilized coexisted with the ignorance and barbarism of Nazism goes a long way toward salvaging the era in which she lived.

There is one more thing about West. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon can be almost unbearable in its chronicling of war, slaughter and cruelty, both in the history of the Balkans and in contemporary Europe, but at one point West makes a beautiful confession. Despite everything they had learned and witnessed, she says, she and her husband continued to believe that maybe everything would be all right again in five years, or maybe 10. They believed this, she said, because “there lived in both our hearts a bright idiot hope.”

Our own times, thank god, are nothing like what was experienced in Europe in the late 1930s, but they can seem perilous and troubling enough. I have been feeling a lot better thanks to West, and to the bright idiot hope she helped to implant in my own heart.

A short walk lets loose a flood of memories

This installment of Travels with Xavi does not involve anything classifiable as “travels,” but at least it does, for a change, involve Xavi (shown above, leading the way).

I only want to write about our recent outing because it illustrated something I said when I started Last Best News almost five years ago. Which was this: when I began thinking it was high time I left the Billings Gazette, and then decided I couldn’t entirely leave journalism, I realized my options were rather limited.

Where was I supposed to work, given that the only two things I seemed to know anything about were Billings and, to a lesser extent, the state of Montana? Last Best News to the rescue.

I have all my years at the Gazette to thank for my knowledge of Billings. That was brought home to me vividly during my recent walk with Xavi. I had to go to the Albertsons at Sixth and Central anyway, so I parked in the lot, did a little bit of shopping and then leashed up Xavi for our walk.

It wasn’t a big walk, maybe an hour, winding our way up and down various streets roughly bordered by Fourth Street West, Central Avenue, 10th Street West and Custer Avenue.  As we wandered, so did my mind, but toward the end of walk I realized that much of what I had been thinking about were all the stories I had written about certain landmarks we’d seen on the way.

Right across from Albertsons, where the CVS store is now, there used to be a rundown by-the-month motel where I interviewed a man who had amassed something like 12 DUIs in 20 years. He had once been fairly well off, but all that drinking had ruined him, and that tiny, dirty little motel room was a pretty good emblem of his current state.

Just north of Albertson’s, there is a lot being used for some kind of storage business. More than 20 years ago, I was sitting in a city car with Marion Dozier, looking at what was then an enormous collection of junk. I always kind of liked the way I opened that story: “Beside a vacant lot just off Sixth Street West in the Central-Terry neighborhood, city code enforcement officer Marion Dozier parks her Chevy Citation to look over another fine mess she’s gotten herself into.”

A few blocks away, on Fifth, I saw from a distance the blue house that Jim Aldrich was living in when I did a story about how he, as a blind man, navigated his way through the world. That was in 2003, and I wondered if he still lived there. As I got closer I figured, nope, he was gone, because the window blinds were open and lights were on inside.

On several blocks of our walk, I remembered my early-morning outing with a Gazette carrier, who called in to object to a column I’d written, in which I gave a sort of mock tour of the Gazette, and jokingly referred to carriers as the people who deliver the paper to your front door, or occasionally to the bushes near your front door, or to the roof above it.

This carrier (whose name I can’t remember and I can’t find the story) wanted me to know that she was always careful to put the paper exactly where her customers wanted it, and that she’d never tossed one on a roof. If I wanted to know more about how she did her job, she said, I should accompany her some morning on her route.

So off we went in the wee hours of the morning, all over the neighborhood I was now traversing on foot. I remember enjoying her nonstop commentary, admiring her diligence … and wondering how in the hell she could stand listening to the crazy AM radio show that aired that time of day.

Xavi and I also walked past a boarded-up house that has sat in the same decrepit condition for several decades now, even after the City Council passed an ordinance, which I wrote about, that seemed to have been aimed at demolishing exactly that sort of eyesore. Hmm. There might still be a story there.

In Terry Park itself, I found myself reminiscing about the old fire station that used to be in the southeast corner of the park, which I’d written about several times, and about the new fire station, in the northwest corner of the park, about which, ditto.

On Howard Avenue, a house brought up memories of a more recent story, one I wrote for Last Best News. The house was owned by a couple who won a $2 million judgment against a bank that foreclosed on the residence—two years after they’d paid cash for it.

And then there was the little house on Miles, which I rented in May of 1989, immediately after going to work at the Gazette and a month before Lisa and our (then) two daughters were to join me in Billings. I knew it wasn’t quite the house we were looking for, but I had a U-Haul to empty, and anyway I knew I would need Lisa’s expert advice before agreeing to a more permanent residence.

As soon as our family was reunited—as if I needed any more proof of the unsuitability of the house on Miles—my oldest daughter, Jessie, then 9 years old, marched into the place, looked around briefly and announced: “This doesn’t look like a house for a pretty girl!” (Editor’s note: It must have been a dump. Jessie has never been vain.)

Anyway, there are many parts of town where I would have just as many memories in as small a compass. That was always the part of my job I liked best—getting out and meeting real people in real places, and learning a little bit more about the city where I have somehow ended up spending much of my life.

Joint

Pictures from an expedition

OK, now that I’ve posted these photos, I am well and truly done with writing about my travels to Bulgaria and Latvia. (Just click on any thumbnail and it will take you to a slideshow.)

Can I close by extending my thanks to everyone who made this trip possible? It all started, as I mentioned in the first installment of Travels with Xavi, with Matt Hagengruber, the former Gazette reporter now working at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. He and his colleagues had to find an emergency fill-in for a journalism professor who was scheduled to make presentations on media literacy and related topics in Bulgaria and Latvia but had to pull out.

Matt asked me to be that fill-in, and after passing muster with the powers that be, off I went on what was surely the strangest and most unexpected adventure of my life.

It was several days before I could feel anything but overwhelmed, but in time I felt unbelievably lucky, and honest-to-God honored to have been involved in this project, especially after I witnessed how important it was to all the many people I met in Sofia and Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, and in Riga and Jelgava, Latvia. I was infected with the sense of seriousness everyone conveyed, because over there the debate about press freedom and freedom of expression is not merely academic; it’s life or death, and holds one of the keys to the future of those countries.

I’d thank people by name, but considering that I couldn’t put a face to more than three or four of the several dozen business cards I came home with, let me extend my general thanks (make that THANKS!)  to one and all.

Miscellaneous observations from the Balkans, the Baltic

I guess it’s time to wrap up my account of my travels to Bulgaria and Latvia. I’ve been home for almost a week now and have already written almost 15,000 words about my trip, which is probably plenty. But my brain is still whirling with images and memories, and I think I will sleep better and finally declare a victory over jet lag if I give vent to one last batch of miscellaneous impressions.

In regard to languages, I am already unable to hear in my mind what Bulgarian sounds like. I seem to recall that it sounded vaguely Russian, or vaguely Slavic, with lots of grumbling undertones and –zsches and –szszes, but the sad truth is that I have always been slower than the average bear at picking up foreign languages, or in being able to tell them apart.

Many years ago, when I was washing dishes at Hotel Central in Davos, Switzerland, an elegant guest who had somehow taken a wrong turning and found herself in the bowels of the hotel stopped to speak with me in English for a short while, and as we spoke my two Serbian workmates, a couple named Giorgio and Giorgina, looked on in wonder.

After the woman left, Giorgo said to me, in the crude Swiss-German that we both spoke so poorly, “Eddie! Were you talking to that woman in French?” I laughed at his innocence, amazed that anyone could mistake English for French. And now here I am, telling you that Bulgarian sounded vaguely Russian, and I can just hear Bulgarians and Russians tut-tutting at my ignorance. Growing old is a continual exercise in humility.

I can tell you this about Latvian, though I risk exposing my ignorance again: It, too, has a vaguely Slavic cast to it, though it also has a distinctly Nordic, sing-songy lilt to it, especially when spoken by women.

I also wanted to say something in general about how I perceived both countries before my impressions slip away. Did I say countries? I should have said cities, because I spent most of my time in the two capitals: Sofia, Bulgaria, and Riga, Latvia.

St. Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia.

I still feel a little guilty about not liking Sofia more than I did. There are some fine parts of it, and some beautiful old buildings and places of worship, but much of the city is represented by two extremes: gleaming, brand-new palaces of commerce, completely untethered to a particular time and place, and endless rows of high-rise Soviet-era apartment buildings, which must have been hideous enough when new and have acquired no charm in the aging process, as buildings constructed with some taste naturally do.

But part of the problem is that Sofia, so I learned, was heavily damaged during World War II, and there are few worse fates, architecturally speaking, than enduring a terrible war and then decades of Soviet occupation. Just as the Communists thought nothing of killing millions of people in pursuit of a brighter future, so they thought that housing millions of people in decrepit, soul-crushing concrete honeycombs was a minor inconvenience on the road to the Millennium.

Also, I was so taken with the Bulgarians I met that I didn’t want to dislike their capital. But the ugly buildings, the ubiquitous spray-paint tagging (as opposed to semi-artistic graffiti) and the profusion of Soviet-realism statuary, which celebrates collective achievement through the medium of grandiose shlock, were hard to ignore.

It didn’t help that some kind of public works project was underway in the heart of downtown Sofia. The project seemed to run straight through the downtown, demarcated not with cyclone fencing but with panels of solid steel, so that one was constantly being detoured without really understanding where one was being directed.  Google Maps was completely discombobulated.

Still, there were parts of Sofia, and whole sections of the old part of Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, that informed me that Bulgaria in its prime was as beautiful as Rome or pre-sprawl Athens. And as I said, I mostly saw just the capital, and a bit of Plovdiv. My one excursion to the Bulgarian countryside filled me with intoxicating visions of what it must be like to tour Bulgaria on its blue highways, its winding two-lane roads. I hope I get a chance to see that Bulgaria in the future.

There is also this: in Sofia, I witnessed one of the most touching things I saw on my trip. Not far from my hotel, and not far from the massive, stately Alexandre Nevski Cathedral, there was a much smaller Orthodox church that I went into, and where I was the only actual tourist. Everyone else was there as a worshipper, most of them elderly women who shuffled reverently from icon to icon, stopping in front of each one to mumble a prayer or to kiss the icon with great feeling.

The little church with the Madonna and Child.

Just inside the entrance to the church was a beautiful painting of the Madonna and Child, in a frame of filigreed silver. A young mother dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, holding her daughter in her arms, stopped in front of the painting. She and her daughter might have been the same age as Mary and Jesus in the painting. The woman gazed intently at it, trembling with emotion, her eyes shut and her lips moving in prayer. As I watched, she reached out and clutched the heavy frame with one hand, as if in need of support, her eyes filling with tears as she directed her pleas or her adoration at the icon. Her daughter was quiet and still, studying the painting with nearly as much intensity as her mother. I hope the mother’s prayers were answered.

Then there was Riga. It was easy to appreciate, in a touristy way. Its Old Town, and much of its downtown outside the oldest district, was the sort of place that people who have never been to Europe picture when they think of Europe: narrow, cobblestoned streets, grand squares (see photo at top), magnificent steeples, subterranean restaurants and bars and quaint little shops. I was told that the charm didn’t extend much beyond the relatively small Old Town, but I ranged pretty widely, penetrating large parts of the city on foot, and most of it was quite beautiful or at least highly interesting. I really loved the alteration of elaborate brick-and-stone structures with old-fashioned wooden buildings that looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. It seemed even more remarkable that these wooden buildings survived even on some of the busiest parts of the downtown, right next to much newer, glitzier buildings.

But I also was told that Latvia has the lowest standard of living in all of the European Union. I saw nothing remotely resembling a slum, though, and I wonder if the poverty is confined to the countryside and the smaller towns. I don’t know, and as with Bulgaria I would love the chance to explore some back roads there.

One of the many wooden buildings seen around downtown Riga.

The only thing I saw outside of Riga was a bit of countryside on our way to Jelgava, 30 or 40 minutes outside of the capital, and it was so foggy that day that I couldn’t see much of anything on either side of the highway. Even on the outskirts of Riga, though, the buildings looked a bit more ragged, certainly no demerit in my eyes.

But then, I am one of those people who fell in love with Butte the first time I laid eyes on its hodgepodge of old buildings in varying stages of decay. Adding to the effect was that, with all the recent moisture, most of the clay-tile roofs were sprouting lichen, and soggy rust-colored leaves were piled up in the troughs of the roofs. On the road to Jelgava, I also saw a ramshackle singlewide trailer surrounded by junk cars, piles of lumber, miscellaneous debris and heaps of God knows what covered with plastic sheeting. It made me a little nostalgic for Montana.

OK, let me wrap up with a few more observations:

♦ One of my few regrets was that I didn’t get a chance to meet anyone in the Roma populations of either Bulgaria or Latvia. I spent much of the past summer obsessed with the writings of George Borrow, an Englishman who traveled and lived among the Roma in several European countries in the early 1800s. I had also read a modern book about the Gypsies, “Bury Me Standing,” which mentioned that the Roma in Sofia lived in some of the most squalid slums of Europe and are still terribly mistreated. Matt Hagengruber took me into a Roma neighborhood of Sofia, but we had time only to drive through. We stared out at junk cars, horse-drawn carts and cows and chickens at loose in some yards. We were likewise stared at by young Roma, not quite malevolently, but with great pride. So much to see and do, so little time…

“Up the Baltick,” by Robert Collier. I bought the English copy; at right is the same book in Latvian.

♦ I mentioned having gone into an English-language bookstore in Riga. The first one I went to was Robert’s Books, not far from my Airbnb. It, too, was quite small but with a good selection of books in English, and I managed to find one gem: “Up the Baltick,” by Mike Collier. It is subtitled “The rediscovered journey of James Boswell & Samuel Johnson to Esthonia, Livonia & Kurland in the year 1778.” It is pure fiction, but delivered as if almost true. I have been reading Boswell for all of my adult life and I had never heard of this book, and no wonder. I later learned that Collier has lived in Latvia for many years, and this book was published in Riga. I could not find a copy of it on eBay or ABE. For all I know, Robert’s is the only place in the world you can buy it. I feel very lucky.

Candles in front of the Presidential Palace, Riga.

♦ My last full day in Riga was Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It is a tradition for people to place lit candles on wire-mesh shelving attached to the walls around the Presidential Palace in Riga every Nov. 11, by way of remembrance, and of course the ceremony was to be much bigger this year because of the anniversary. I went down to the palace early in the afternoon and it was already quite cold and windy, so I didn’t stay long. I had thoughts of going back at night, when it must have been spectacular, but it was really cold by then, so I opted for a warm restaurant. At least I had gone down earlier. I would find out later that a certain world leader ducked out of a similar ceremony in France at the prospect of a spot of rain.

♦ I wish I could have been in Riga a week later—today, in fact. Latvia declared its independence on Nov. 18, 1918, and though it later fell under the sway of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again, that day is still sacred. On the river that runs through Riga, there were 25 or 30 rafts or moored platforms covered with plastic tarps. I was given to understand that these were all full of fireworks, to be launched during the centennial observations today.

♦ I promised to update people on the affair of the missing magazine. It appears as though the matter has been resolved, or soon will be. After I got an email from an official with the Latvian National Library, asking me to return a copy of the New York Review of Books, I wrote back to explain how the misunderstanding came to be. I also said, edging close to impertinence, that the magazine, which I had donated to a bookstore-coffee shop named Bolderaja, was just a magazine. That same official responded a couple of days ago, saying:

“Thank you for the answer! As the ancient Romans said: Books (magazines?) have their destiny… This is a good reason finally go to the Bolderaja!

“I do not have much to add and blame you — so it goes!”

Also, my contact at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, Shannon Ritchie, asked me to forward the email to her, since her colleagues at the embassy run the JFK Reading room at the library, from which I had taken the magazine. “We’ll sort it out,” she said. I had rather looked forward to spell in a Latvian prison, thinking that if I couldn’t get a book out of that, what good was I? But freedom also has its charms.

I said this would be my last post on my travels, but I think I should probably end it with a photo gallery. I’ll get around to that in the next few days.