I went to a Rick Bass reading at the University of Montana the other night. His books were displayed on a table in the back, and I found one called Winter: Notes from Montana. It just felt right in my hand. It was like a journal, with dated passages documenting his first winter in Montana. I bought it, took it with me to my seat, and became absorbed with the language and story.
The language was given a voice when Mr. Bass began reading. He grew up in the South so he has a slight accent. I enjoyed the sound of his quiet, story-telling voice. He read an essay he wrote called "Shy." In it, he describes shyness as feeling very far away from everything, and this description was so accurate that I decided, “I like this guy.” Afterward, I wanted to have him sign Winter for me but there were so many people, and I felt far away, so I scurried out the door.
I went home and read Winter. In it a younger Rick Bass and Elizabeth, his then girlfriend and current wife, drive through several western states looking for a private place in the wilderness where they can live and practice their art. They wind up in a place called Yaak in Montana near the Canadian border, a valley with no electricity or phones, and just a few year round residents. They become caretakers of a ranch, and spend their first harsh winter there. According to Bass, once he survives the winter he will become a “resident” and fit in better with the local loggers and ranchers.
A recurring theme in the book is Bass’ determination to secure enough firewood to last through the season. He figures he needs thirty to forty cords. He’s gotten a late start so he doubles his efforts through the fall and into winter. He uses his Falcon since the transmission is out on his pickup. He humorously describes one trip where he had wood piled everywhere on the inside and strapped to the outside of his car, including on the dashboard and in the glove compartment.
He cut, hauled and split all of the wood himself. This was a cold, silent winter with no television or other entertainment. Being where he was, in the mountains above Whitefish and Libby, I like to think he had access to some Rob Quist music to get him through.That would have been perfect. What better way to calm the chemical stirrings in the back of the brain that he calls the “winter blahs.”
I think the white quietness of the mountains would get the better of me, and I’ve lived in Montana my entire life. Mr. Bass makes it, proves to himself and the locals that he is a survivor, and finds a new home.
I highly recommend this book.