creative nonfiction

The prose that appears here has appeared previously, but may have been revised since.


Blonde Girls Get Kidnapped

The summer my only sister Lyn was kidnapped, a bee flew up my yellow shorts but did not sting me. Events remarkable on their own, and yet, their timing and uniqueness linked them in my mind. The particulars of each, like shells and potsherds, feathers and fragments of bones, I pick up and arrange on the table, paste them in a mosaic, and I remember this story.

It was 1958 and my family was living in Havre, Montana, a place plopped down between the Bear’s Paw Mountains and the Canadian border, a place banked on the Milk River between wheat fields and nondescript badlands. Havre, pronounced with a prideful and un-Frenchlike “Hav-er” by Montanans, also was a place squinched between my father’s desire to return to his hometown and his need to find work anywhere. We were reefed on poverty, the jobs available in Montana as scarce and minimal as those in the southern California we had left. Just as easily, he could have pumped gas on a Whittier street as on the northern plains or bent sheet metal for gutters in Santa Monica as on the High Line.

    This story of my sister’s kidnapping begins with my father coming home from the Texaco station, a red-and-white star stitched precisely to the heart pocket of his dark green shirt. When he asks for my sister, Lyn, he seems to be daring us to commit an error, to misspell a word. But my mother, my brother and I know she is out­side, playing in the front yard of the Veterans' Housing apartments. Where else can she, the small­est of two-year-old's, be?

But my father has looked and Lyn no longer plays there. If not there, and not in the apart­ment, then where? For the umpteenth time, he accuses my mother of being a less than adequate moth­er. He hints at something we children cannot identify: infi­del­i­ty, dishonesty, cruelty, hatred. The sin of absence. My father's testimony—the precise words forgot­ten, the vehemence remembered—must force me, at six, and my brother, at four, to examine my mother. As we stare, she turns into a stranger we cannot trust, a woman who has lost a child.

Anger and confusion surge through the room, before my father tells us—why has he withheld this information?—that as he was nearing home, he saw a little girl—puggish nose and blonde hair—waving from a passing black car and she looked an awful lot like Lyn. “They could have been twins,” he says.

    My father announces he will search for Lyn and the black car. With his declaration, he acquires heroic proportions; with his decision to act, he redeems us. He goes, taking the stairs two, three at a time, becoming the character I want him to be.

    In his wake, tension boils and eddies around us. Rather than swim against that, my brother and I float, gasping, weighted, afraid, while my mother sits-stands-worries, moving from bedroom window to living room window and back again. She stares through the panes of glass she has cleaned, penitently, with ammonia and newspaper. First, at crum­pled weeds in the field behind the apartments—the field where the bee has yet not to sting me—as if Lyn is hiding there; then, at the paved lot out front, as if she has crawled in one of the parked cars and has, until this very moment, been unable to open the door. But my sister fails to appear.

All of this, while my father, in a gray 1949 Dodge, cruises one Havre street after another. For nightmare hours, he looks for the black car in a backwash Montana town suddenly grown into a city out of an Orson Welles film, a place where each street appears identical to the last, a place no longer the town where he grew up. And then, more miracu­lous than any Bible story I have heard, he finds the black car parked before a house that this memory paints the lightest of greens, a house without lawn or sidewalk.

My father knocks on the door, and when a woman opens it, he sees Lyn playing inside on the floor with a man. "That's my daughter there," he tells them. Brave as hell, he walks in and picks her up amidst "Daddy-Oh’s" and "Lyn-Oh’s."

* * *

As a child, I had two dolls, twin compact walkers a foot high, their knees and elbows jointed. If you held them correctly, they tottered along. Identical dolls, except one was blonde and the other brunette. When my sister and I created stories with them, I was always the brunette, whose name alternated between Tina and Rita. Whatever her name, she lived an enviable, gypsy life. I can’t remember the blonde doll’s name, but my sister was forced to be her.


After my father brought my sister home, we pestered him with questions, but the one foremost in our minds was Why? Why had this strange man and woman kidnapped Lyn? Why her? Of course, he put that question to them.

"They said she was sitting on the curb. Trying to tie her shoelaces. They thought she must've been lost," he said to our now-tight circle of family.

 Staring at Lyn resting in my father's arms, we recognized the strangers' lie. To our knowledge, my sister had never tied her shoelaces or buttoned her shirt. Never­the­less, we stored the lie; and much later, I sorted through its possible meanings. Had she known all along how to tie her shoelaces? Buttoned her shirt in secret? Kept these and other facts to herself?

    My parents kept the kidnapping to themselves. Tell that to people today and they are incredu­lous, espe­cially when milk cartons come printed with the faces of the missing, half-tone images that cannot disguise the unresolved story. And my sister might have been one of those children. However, my parents’ failure to report the kidnapping to the Havre police does not strike me as odd, except in retrospect, because thirty years ago, the sense that my father had taken care of things enveloped us. An unspoken com­mandment calmed us. My sister's taking and return should not be made any more significant. What purpose could be served? After all, she was back with us, safe and sound. Or was she?

Besides, we must have thought, any mention of the kidnap­ping to the authorities might have brought unwanted attention, a manifestation of the Evil Eye. Didn't my mother throw salt over her shoulder and refuse to buy knives for herself, for us? To this day, she says, “If someone gives you a knife, give them a penny.” In those days, none in my family wanted to tempt fate with such bravado, such derring-do. We cherished invisibil­ity, hoarded thoughts, protected what we could.

All of us it seemed, except my sister.

By being kidnapped, Lyn had revealed herself, exposed herself to some­thing beyond us, had let herself in for some great "It.” For me, it was as if that man and woman had said my sister longed—pretending she could tie her shoe laces; really, how sweet—to be kid­napped; to be taken in by them. But for what? It? Was her con­scious­ness, her psychological and physical make-up seeking escape from something foreseen, from what seemed or­dained? Or was she only then, by being kidnapped and then rescued, fulfilling a prophecy? What if none of that had happened? What if?

* * *

It was 1960. We were living in a trailer house on the property of Strammit, a company which made insulation from straw compressed between a sheet of tar paper treated with fire retardant, and for whom my father worked, our trailer sandwiched between U.S. Highway 2 and Great Northern’s railroad tracks. We had been told to stay away from everything: the warehouse with its maze of straw and equipment, the road with its east-west tractor trailer traffic, and the train with its caboose and waving engineer—sirens to us children. On this day my mother walked with my brother, my sister and me to visit neighbors a mile down the road, but shortly after we arrived, Lyn disappeared with the friends’ daughter. When, an hour later, my mother found the girls playing at our trailer, she yanked my sister off the floor by the braids that arced the top of her head, holding her so long in midair that her suspended feet grew small and still. The hank of blonde hair clutched in my mother’s hand could not be untangled from love and anger, love and fear, the life lines of her palm.

* * *

For many years I believed the kidnapping and the bee not stinging bequested to my sister, bad luck, and to me, magic.

Because the bee that flew up my shorts did not sting me as I sat on the dirt between summer-dried weeds and grasses behind Vet's Housing, I was accorded protection for a lifetime. I would be the one to walk city streets alone, enclosed in a mirror-like bubble, the prover­bial voyeur, unseen but all-seeing. Hadn't I sat with inno­cence similar to my sister's, sat quietly and waited for the bee to emerge? Hadn't passivity blessed me? The bee would always leave without harming me, or me needing to harm it.

Because my sister had been stolen, she would need rescuing, forev­er, if need be. She would always be too-visible, the prover­bi­al victim, Leda to Zeus's swan, that woman of whom men would say that she was "asking for it." By appearance, by a turn of the head, by the crime of too much leg, too much breast. By my sister’s clumsy combination of crotch twisting skirts and platform heels, mascara and cakey blush. Women are always asking for it. Hadn't she sat, in two-year-old innocence, so close to home, playing with her shoes? Hadn't that activity in the front yard been provocative enough to land her this trouble? She would always be snapped up. Pinned to walls, pasted to marquees. Perhaps there would be nothing we could do; we couldn't always be there. Could we practice eternal vigilance? Was I destined to be my sister's keeper? I balked at the role; blonde bimbos should practice karate, learn to carry guns.

* * *

Through childhood, adolescence, and seven years of a first marriage, I believed, I was the "good" daugh­ter/wife and she, the "bad" daughter/slut—I was everything my sister was not. I carried a talis­man, and she, a brand. Hadn't I read The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice by then, seeing our stories played out repeatedly in those pages? There I was, crouched on the upper rungs, spiritually, intellectually, and physically, of some Socratic hierarchy of Being; there, my sister, far below, swing­ing on the sexual gates of Hell, embraced by a teenage devil. What were their names?

By fourteen, my sister was smiling and flirt­ing, sneak­ing out at night to such a degree that my mother dragged her to a gynecolo­gist, and got her on the Pill. My sister barely finished high school and later dressed in black tuxedo and top hat to entice shoppers to taste Kellogg's corn flakes in a Safeway off of Military Road. To my mind, she was selling herself. A hook, if not a hooker; a body, not a person with whom I could talk.

At seventeen, I prided myself on choice, on being better than her. A regular Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes. I danced my way through high school, with honors enough to attend the University of Washing­ton, and at twenty pur­chased, with my own money, yellow packets of Ortho Novum 150 at Hall Health. I had found true love. At college I felt safe, taken in by the hermit­age of language and culture and self-motivation, a place my sister could not share with me, because I would not let her. Could I have shown her Rimbaud’s poetry or Anaïs Nin’s diaries, when she had never laughed with me and Jane Austen, never found adven­ture in H. Rider Haggard's Africa?

As if any of that proved anything. And yet?

I left my sister to work in book­stores, where one boss called me "Miss Versatili­ty," one way I let myself be conned. I left my sister to interview loggers and environ­men­tal­ists, politicos and pigeon-raisers, and finally, dozens of Junior Miss candi­dates, for small town newspapers; to do whatever it took to separate me from the past, from the sister I was not. I was still the perfect voyeur, scientifically obser­vant and resisting connec­tions between us, except as oppositions.

What artful amnesia I practiced. Me, guilty of one-night stands? Me, subject to passive deceits? To jumping in bed with a juggler on Halloween, my husband waiting at home? To hoarding envies? To accepting jobs for minimal wages, jobs I mastered with an obsession worthy of a CEO?

Finally, I left my sister: without kinship, with only her round­ness, seemingly so endear­ing, an invitation to smile, with gentle pinches from strangers and friends alike. She must have liked bruises. If she wasn’t going to carry a knife, she needed to fill her pockets with pennies.

* * *

From an early age I believed blondes had more fun, and blondes who were beautiful had the most fun. For proof, I looked to movies starring Marilyn Monroe, Hailey Mills, and Kim Novak, to Playboy bunnies reverently pinned to the wall by my father, to the women in Clairol and Breck hair ads, and to my sister, blondely irresistible and bursting with sexuality—all of which I neither possessed nor wanted to be possessed by. Or at least so I once told myself.

Back in 1958 and through my early twen­ties, I harbored a secret. I wanted to trade places with my sister, to be the one blessed with blonde hair and blue eyes, the round McHale nose and what my mother called a cupid's bow for a mouth. To be It—whatever that meant—pinched and pointed at. My plain brown hair and eyes, eyes that would not settle into one color, blue this day and green-gray the next, precluded such treatment. But, would I have ever allowed It?

To be honest, I craved It, that attention; after all, who isn’t called to beauty, to daily and utter acceptance? However, so posi­tive then that I would never get it, I put on a surly face through adolescence, the face of sublime intel­ligence in an over­weight teenager with bad skin—as I remember her—a teenager who wallow­ed in self-pity and read sappy poetry in her upstairs bed­room. Even today when someone stares too long, or long­ingly, I frown or smirk, bury my nose in a book. Divert­ing my mother's never-to-be-forgotten Evil Eye, I wear dopey hats to hide my hair; call myself fat; avoid perfume between my breasts, behind my ears; make up a public and indifferent face. Scrutiny can only bring harm, right? The bee left me unscathed because I pretend­ed it was not there. I was not subject to It. How clever I thought myself through those years, above boy-girl games, at seventeen, burrowing into the library stacks at the University of Wyoming, evading it. It? All that insipid sex, or was it really incipi­ent?

The truth, despite protests, was that I wanted to have been the one taken in grace by strangers, to have been that child kidnapped. Grace? Did I really think that? Could I have understood that word? Grace? Grace, in my vocabu­lary then, must have meant receiving my just desserts, for being Miss Goody Two-Shoes incarnate, welcomed through heaven's gate, and rightfully so. But in my mind’s story, I trans­formed my sister into the one blessed with grace: the kidnap­ping re­deemed her. I made of my sister a Saint Anne or a Mother Mary being visited by the Angel of the Lord, an angel who taps her with a long stick and says, "God blesses you. You're it.” Being "it" under such circumstances would have signified something. At least, that’s how I twisted meaning into the concept of attaining grace through kidnapping, ascending out of our family.

The final truth must be told. For thirty some years I was haunted by the possibility my sister might never have been found. Would I have missed her or only this story of her? By fantasizing my sister’s loss, I envied her the opportunity and grace—troublesome word—to disap­pear, to take up, as I imagined, a new life, a new abode. New habits. And all that time, driving my envy was a picture of myself as the one kidnapped and lost, never to be rediscovered. When it comes down to it, aren't we all orphans, abandoned at birth by some weird fate—car accident, mix-up at the hospital—and waiting to be rescued by our real parents, who were tricked into thinking we were dead by these strangers masquerad­ing as parents?

With that strange man and woman in the background, I drafted alternative scripts for my sister and, by extension, for myself as her understudy, casting us as misplaced princesses and them as fairy godparents, complete with forever after's and handsome princes. The whole shebang. If only. How different, I thought, would Lyn's life have been if my father had not seen her wave across that space between the window of his gray Dodge and the window of the strangers' black car. In that space her life changed.

As someone else, she lived in the same house—certainly no Nashua trailer propped on cement blocks, waiting for a hard wind to rattle it loose from its tenuous moorage. All her life, she traveled the world catered and in style, was punished rarely, ate ice cream with Hershey's chocolate sauce every night for dessert—not unbuttered bread as a before-bed treat. Pretty, please. I wrote and re-wrote my sister's life, becom­ing those fairy godparents I wanted for myself and felt my sister needed.

In my romance, my sister is never arrested for shoplifting a paisley-printed scarf at the Wigwam Store on Pacific Highway between Seattle and Tacoma; she never smokes dope, or drinks cold Rainier from long-necked bot­tles, or has to prove her sexuality in the back seat of some boy's borrowed car. She and I never fight over hair brushes. There, in that best of all worlds, where anything becomes possi­ble, she avoids trage­dy: beatings from her lover, throwing up after every meal in an attempt to stay thin for him. And for how many others, contorting body and mind and spirit?

In those last desires for my sister, I recognize my own. With the touch of my wand on her brow, we both would have known from birth we could never be thin enough, never good enough, never quiet enough. Children seen and not heard. With that revelation, we could have stopped wending our way to recapture the invisibility we had lost as children, to escape the Minotaur of neglect and abuse, regret and reverie. The labyrinth of someone else's making and in which so many are sacrificed.

* * *

The last scene of The Misfits frames itself in my memory, fracturing my ideas about Marilyn Monroe, ideas about beauty and power, truth and innocence, images and words. As she screams at Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe contorts and bucks like the wild horses she wants the men to release, her blonde hair totemic of the animals’ dark manes. Like the wild horses, she cannot comprehend—even when she loves them--the men’s need to control her body, to break her spirit. To kidnap her and to make her over. She screams, until the words can only be articulated by her body. My body emulates her contractions, preparing to spill out, either in birth or in vomit; my feet stamp the harsh earth, impatient with anger and love. To be done with It. We scream for the horses, for ourselves. Marilyn Monroe screams herself into a poem, into our souls, by throes into a person I want to hold to, and then she releases herself.

* * *

Rather than diving headlong into my own maze of de­sires, it still seems safer for me to plot my sister's life as it has become, noting where I, as fairy godmother, would leave well enough alone. I would still give her these. Her house in Tacoma, with Araucanan chickens that lay eggs the color of an ocean sky, and dogs and two children. The nerve to inter­rupt her testi­mony before a federal grand jury investigating bribes to Weyerhaeuser, to tell the judge she has to nurse her baby son, “Right now.” Her strength to get the family business back on course after her father-in-law and brother-in-law are sentenced to white-collar prisons. And yes, her mar­riage to a quiet man with black hair and mus­tache, both of which have grayed, a man who shows his guitars to me and my husband in such a way that I toss my wand in the nearest stream. My sister does not need the fictional or fantastic protec­tion I have offered.

My acceptance of the gift of her life evokes more magic finally than the romances I have let bog us down for so long. The better part of thirty years, I had not noticed when our differ­ences and similarities converged and sepa­rated, like double helixes, until now, when all that matters is not how we compare, but who each of us has become. Both of us bookkeepers when necessary, she an at-home mother and I thriving in a second marriage. Both of us tough and pragmatic when necessary, I the one constructing fictions and she the one forging a family.

Until I began to work out the myths on paper, making the connections between events and people, connections so long avoided, I had not realized how my sister and I had changed, moving beyond the need for blessings from above, from our par­ents, from someone other than our selves. My sister's innocence and experience, our states of unrecog­nized grace, deserve something better than what we have been handed and blithely accepted, letting ourselves be designated "this" or "that, "good" or "bad." Right and wrong.

We, my sister and I, have all the grace we need, and do not have to keep repeating the past to be nourished by it. We can learn. I can speak for myself only, and I do not need to look in her for me or for what is not me. I breathe and begin telling another story.

* * *

Blonde colors the cheat grass and reed grass ash and golden, silver and honey, the bluegrass not blue at all. It is blonder than the hair of my sister or Marilyn Monroe or the me I am surprised to see in photographs of my two-year-old self. Blonde colors last year’s stacked hay shipwrecked in a supra-naturally green field between Pavilion and Boysen Reservoir. Blonde colors the breast of the red-tailed hawk that rises from my speeding bumper and pulls me toward its determined flight. Blonde colors the sheep whose mouths murmur over the grass that matches their sun-drenched and woolly hides. Blonde is the color of fall in Wyoming, a season and a land as abandoned and as cultivated as the myths we tell ourselves again and again, blonde reminding me that everywhere and nowhere are the same and different.

--Appeared in Intermountain Woman: A magazine by and for women, Vol 1, No 6, 1997

Fourth of July

With topo maps and compass stowed for now, my husband and I dropped off the trail to cross the unnamed creek. Neither of us felt compelled to christen the merging of rock and water and brush. Neither of us congratulated ourselves on good fortune and sure-footedness to leave other holiday hikers behind.

We scrambled up scree slopes, connected grassy ledges, let our feet follow the un­marked path we had scoped out to the saddle between two nameless peaks. As we climbed, nubbins of granite disap­peared, only to grow into car-sized boul­ders. At one point, I begged the belay of an extra hand. When we emerged an hour later on the pla­teau, balanced twenty-three hundred feet above the junc­tion of New Fork and Palmer creeks, I was glad and uncomplaining because I had selected the route.

It was Fourth of July. 1985. Squaretop Mountain Quadrangle. Scale 1:24,000. Hidden Lakes Plateau. Wind River Mountains. Wyoming.

* * *

For me, that camping trip represented a break from inter­view­ing valedictorians and detectives, drug dealers and bird lovers for the Jackson Hole News; for my hus­band, a chance to ascend from a basement office where he drafted maps and punched comput­er keys. A vacation from having to balance the external and the internal, from making commitments to ei­ther/or's.

Here, in this corner of the world we like to foster other polarities, ideas to separate "us" from "them," including this rumor: most Ameri­cans get no further than fifty feet from their cars. It may be fifty yards, but no matter. Like other environ­men­tally conscious folk, I have often won­dered what view of wilderness and nature could "most Ameri­cans" have got from scenic turn­outs, designat­ed picture-taking spots, and visitor infor­mation panels, the latter replete with suggested F-stops and white arrows point­ing to mountains.

In this corner of the world, we have applauded our enlight­enment: didn't we know wilder­ness and nature best of all, without re­course to guidebooks and cameras. For "most Ameri­cans," we would tell you, wilder­ness and nature translate to "points of inter­est," "points" ticked off on imagi­nary or real lists, "points" cartoonish or frightening, roman­ticized or dismissible. As easily acquired as New York Times best sell­ers. As accessible as icons on a comput­er screen: pro­grams and data only a click of the mouse button away. "Of interest" to armchair travel­ers and mail-order adven­turers alike.

Then, I remind myself of what Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams: "What one thinks of any region, while traveling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imag­ines, and how one is dis­posed." So, none of us can help our­selves: we have been strapped by intellect, imagination, and ideolo­gy, traveling whatever land­scape with our own personal and cultural blend of mental baggage. So much for priviliging unique vision, a vision which confuses econom­ics and physical abili­ty with desire and ethical conscience.

* * *

My husband and I spent that long weekend wandering off-trail, in a world of geologic semantics and meteorological syntax: exfoliated granite slabs, ramps and boulders; snow repeated­ly becoming water; soils blown and pushed and trampled. Molecules turning into themselves. Tarns and lakes re­flecting sandy brown rock; sky scudded by cloud and wind. Tongues of icy beach licking mineral and vegeta­ble into crystal and cell. It embodied the language of transforma­tion.

Between rocks and snow and noisy rivulets, we stopped to watch flowers emerge: sandwort and alpine buttercup, white and yellow. There, at 11,000 feet, life hugs the ground. Not from choice, but because it must to survive. At a species level, no matter how we segregate ourselves from each other and from the embrace of life and earth, are we human beings so different? We differ, it would seem, only in the scale and vanity of our choices, the outcomes hunting us down.

A pair of small birds, brown in color and chattering a sharp song, flew up from our feet. We bent over: a nest shaped like a child's cupped hand, and in it, three grape-sized eggs. We moved off, afraid there were others less pro­tected. And yet, we explored outcrop­pings, places where primroses would later appear, scar­let flags signaling the ever-present glacial breezes.

* * *

That Hidden Lakes country refuted my mind's scale, perplexed other frames of reference. With my eyes I easily crossed can­yons, with my hand reached out to caress the arc of Gannett's summit. Howev­er, an examina­tion of the map revealed the snowy peak lay six miles to the east. Still, I would not be con­vinced. Desire intervened; magic transcended science. Below Wyoming's highest moun­tain, I would shape my body to the confines of a sun-exposed cre­vasse. A fish in a deep grotto. A seal on floating log. A frog awaiting the rain.

* * *

The first night, my husband and I waked. We emerged from sleeping bags and tent to find the Milky Way raining a fine dust on the moonless landscape. To the south­west and well below the hori­zon, we were surprised: lights materi­alized, and then rapidly disap­peared. We stared. This dazzling show repeated itself. Finally, we realized we were watch­ing Indepen­dence Day fireworks near Pinedale. Happily for us, they radiated neither sound nor color.

I was mesmerized though, until with one hand, I covered the silent bursts. What magic.

The next two days we saw no other people.

* * *

In retrospect, I have found myself thinking of a friend. For umpteen seasons in the Wind Rivers, he collected lake and snow samples for an acid rain study, a study aimed at monitoring the effects of industrial and personal pollution on the sanctity of nature and wilderness. He did it on skis and on foot, out of personal desire and the common need for paying work.

In thinking of his purpose and after studying maps, I have realized how the lakes of that Hidden Plateau flow wester­ly, joining the Green River in its southern angling toward the conflu­ence with the Colora­do River in Utah, readying itself for the longer journey to the Califor­nia gulf. I have concluded that whatever hap­pens beneath our feet, whether in wilder­ness or on a street cor­ner, has affect­ed, and will contin­ue to affect, great whales congre­gating in the Sea of Cortez thou­sands of miles from this or any other water­shed, this or any other piece of concrete.

To answer the Zen master's question: trees, and yes, rocks and rain, falling in the divides of Wyoming mountains will be heard in the distant trills, in the long vowels and full conso­nants of Mexican and whale, of the native and the visitor. All of us alike. All of us.

--Appeared in Kinesis, July 1997

Montana, Home Again

For a mile at least, we have seen the roof of the house forging sharp lines against the willows and cottonwood and volcanic bluff. Even in winter, I am sure the house's rusty brown peak reaches high enough to catch morning sun.

Our single track climbs slightly, veering east, before descending between long abandoned alfalfa fields toward the house. This homestead of my Wiederhold relatives does not sit quite where my father has placed it these last sixty years, but we have found it nonetheless, without much trouble or many detours. He remembers the road as edging the western toe of the hill much closer to Dog Creek.

"We're lucky we didn't come sooner," he says as he maneuvers his Chevy pickup truck around one more puddle, skirts another set of ruts. "A little rain'll turn this to gray gumbo."

The recent rain, unusual for the second week of July along Montana's High Line, has greened the hills and fields beyond recollection. Potholes horde two-day-old rainwater, the soil grudgingly sloughing off heat, air almost too thick and warm to breathe.

We bounce out of another hole, and I tell my father about the nightmare bentonite creates on Wyoming backroads. He says this Montana gumbo would have been much worse to negotiate. Even four-wheel drive, if we'd been so lucky to have, wouldn't have gotten us out of the mess.

Okay, Okay. I choose to agree with him for the time being, for this day we have together. I am glad we've come today, and not a minute or year sooner.

* * *

The land and its abandoned buildings draw my eyes. They are not anonymous, or safe, belonging as they do to my family's story. The still-standing Sears kit house, doors and chimney intact, means something to my past, present and future. This Depression era homestead of my great aunt and uncle, Anita and Fred Wiederhold, tucked in a southern fold of the Bear Paws Mountains, is not just a collection of historic fixtures and quaint reminders in a museum. Not only metaphors for somebody else's dreams-gone-sour.

We have each driven several hundred miles--my father from western Washington, I from Jackson Hole--to allow him to show me at least one of the places he lived as a child. To give me an inkling of his adolescent life. To realize the veracity of his stories: walking four miles to some mythical one-room schoolhouse in -40 degree temperatures; helping my great uncle Fred dig a well; rounding up wild horses on the Missouri Breaks when he was only 13; digging potatoes and storing them in the root cellar. The stuff of movies, but surely not of anybody's "real" life.

I will learn that some of the stories were true, and that the things he and his relatives did back then were not done for recreation or fun, but as the very means of survival. These people were not the play farmers or designer ranchers of the late twentieth century who now flock to the West, the West where I too have chosen to live. But things are changing even in these remote mountains of Montana: at least one farm family has turned from haying to outfitting so that Minnesota businessmen can hunt deer on their private land. More lucrative, less backbreaking. These children of homesteaders are not country bumpkins; they have read the consumer market well.

My father and I have taken this journey to heal the unspoken of wounds; we do not speak directly to causes and cures, or even define them as wounds. Perhaps the scars are too old; more than likely, some have become invisible to even the most insistent of fingers.

I have come here for answers, connections. I will accept traces, what dust I can hold in my hands. And my father? I think he seeks similar things, but cannot articulate them. Not because he is dumb in any literal or figurative sense, but because he never learned the words, perhaps unaware such syntax existed or such nuances could be pulled from clumsy language.

* * *

On the road to Big Sandy, my father points off west, where fields alternate green-purple alfalfa and gold wheat, the land rising and falling like shallow breath. When he was 17, he worked on a 13-section farm near Box Elder. It was there he learned oats were used as a starter grain to shade tiny alfalfa plants, that a system of summer fallows assured fertility, and that combines would save men's backs at harvest time. Throughout the morning's drive he points to fields, letting me know what should be growing in each.

I don't think that the life he perceived on that family farm outside Box Elder was one my father truly envied, except perhaps in its regularity. Only now since his retirement from Boeing has he attained a semblance of stability in his studio-sized home; within its walls he has only himself to control.

As he speaks about the Golden Triangle of Wheat, about flying this land with a pilot friend, I realize he wants to share his knowledge of this place and of its people's lives; I also realize he is asking forgiveness. Over the years of my growing up, so many stories and ideas, joys and hurts that went unspoken. His voice could have been used for so much more.

Big Sandy comes, a stone's throw from the highway: stockyards, Centennial Mills grain elevator, roadside park with restrooms, railroad depot.

"When we first came here from Cedar Rapids, Fred picked us up in their Model A pickup," he says as we pull away from the Sinclair pumps.

That was 1930 and Grandpa Rae Wieneke, my father's stubborn father, had lost his railroad job back in Iowa, and so, he moved Grandma Brenda and the three kids--my father, his older sister Gladys and kid brother Johnny--out West. My grandfather left them at his sister's and her husband's homestead and continued on to a ranch in the Missouri Breaks, 40 miles to the southeast. On occasion, my father says, Grandpa Rae would arrive on horseback, unannounced, at the Wiederhold farm. His absences were not missed. "He was a sonovabitch," my father says.

For miles neither of us speaks. When we do, it is to share the image of buffalo grazing tall grass. "Can you just see them?" Ghost animals and plants replace alfalfa and wheat and fallowing fields that now patch a land stitched by roads, irrigation ditches and telephone lines. "Can you believe it?"

* * *

Out of Big Sandy we take the Judith Landing Road; the names of a dozen kids have been spray painted white on the pavement, Luke and Steve among them. Their asphalt fame subjected to weather and tires spinning on; where are they now?

For 13 miles my father keeps saying we've taken the wrong road: it's paved and heading away from the Bear Paws toward the Missouri Breaks. He lights up a cigarette, glances at me to see if I'll complain. I cough into my hand. Finally, we stop at a white farmhouse for directions. A woman answers the door, gets us turned around.

"What's your name?" she asks, after my father reveals some history and the nature of our trip. He tells her, and she says, "I knew it." The woman, who was sophomore class president when my father attended Havre High School, says, "Oh, yes, I remember Bob Wieneke as being very nice."

Even now, I have to balance her unguarded, unsolicited smile with my own memories of this man, a man who only recently has admitted, "I wasn't a very good father to you kids." I couldn't disagree with him then, but have forgiven him since because, in his own way, he is trying to make it up.

* * *

As we pull around to the front of the homestead, I watch swallows swinging and tucking through the moist air above Dog Creek, nabbing invisible insects. The Wiederhold house has retained its Victorian trappings--fancy windows and scalloped gables--but the porch welcomes us with the simplicity of shade.

And damn, if most of the place isn't as my father remembers. He rummages for his video camera. As I skirt the house, I examine the grass and weeds for rattlesnakes, the always nemesis in my childhood nightmares. My father laughs at my fear and calls me to the porch. "I want to show you this."

The dry rock foundation supports a solid floor. Window frames hold complicated panes of clear glass. Plaster has peeled away from the lathe, revealing layers of paint and paper, a previous desire to have something beautiful. The narrow staircase to the small second story does not creak. With a little paint and insulation and new glass, I see people living and dreaming here again. Even the well, a hundred yards from the house, cups water at the bottom of its still circle perfect, red brick lined walls.

What a strange world: my father, video camera at hand, batteries gone dead, visiting a homestead, remembering what happened sixty-two years earlier. What saddens him most: the barn and corral have been torn down, bulldozed into the dry bed of Dog Creek's former meanderings. Is he sad because he cannot show them to me, or because he can no longer prove their existence to himself? He walks where the barn once stood.

Memories tie themselves to specific places, tastes and sounds, the feel of a planed surface, the sight of an old, old barn. Take away the essential detail, whatever it might be, and Poof! we cannot make the connections clear to ourselves or for others.

There are things he wants to tell me, but things that can only be told--if that barn and corral were still standing. Without their presence, he has no landmarks to help him lead me through this part of his life. He makes a stab at it, offers bits and pieces: lanky George Barnes shooting prairie hens, Great Aunt Anita putting cowboys down to their knees with her piano-trained fingers and hands, a bull snake keeping the root cellar gopher free. What else?

* * *

By day's end, on our return to Havre, we are kicking up dust from the edges of the upper Warrick Creek road. The weather has changed to thunder clouds over the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. We are en route to another family reunion dinner.

As we cross the heart of the Bear Paws, I ask my father to drive slowly. As we drop into Beaver Creek, I scan the borrow ditch on my side looking for that just right rock. A memento of our trip. When I get back to Wyoming, I will lay it next to the ancient piece of deformed basalt I stole from the field next to the Wiederhold house, making of them and other stones I have found, a path home.

--Appeared in Kinesis, April 1993