Swooping down from the Continental Divide along Lewis and Clark’s trail on Highway 200, I leave the evergreen forests on the west side of Rogers Pass and descend to wind-struck plains. The change in topography is startling. On the west side of the pass, the road winds steeply upward through pines and brush looking down to a sunless canyon where dark houses huddle on patches of grass. Over the top and I’m struck by light and space. Rain-shadowed plains open to the horizon, and a highway taut as a stretched rubber band runs uphill and down but always straight ahead. I can see for miles and see no cars or houses, only the muted wash of spring grass, cows and coulees, buttes rising in the distance, a few horses, snow fences, weathered shacks, and the wide blue heavens above.
A. B. Guthrie Jr. christened this landscape the Big Sky in his famous book about mountain men and Indians. The name took, and as Montana license plates proclaim, this is indeed Big Sky Country. Guthrie lived some seventy miles northwest of here, where plains meet mountains near Choteau. A short ride west from his spread toward Ear Mountain is a log cabin along the Teton River owned by the poet Ripley Schemm, wife of the far better-known poet Richard Hugo.
This road, that cabin, take me back to a summer day in 1977. I was shooting a film with my film partner Beth Ferris, trying to document Dick Hugo’s life in a movie we’d call Kicking the Loose Gravel Home. The film opens with Dick driving these rollercoaster hills, heading for Ripley’s cabin in his pine-green sixties vintage Buick convertible. The top is down. His balding head shines in the sun. He hums to a Benny Goodman tune played loud on the tape deck.
Hugo was close as family to me and my husband Dave. Our friendship began in Seattle around 1962, while Dave was getting a PhD in literature after giving up a career as a lawyer. Drawn by Hugo’s poems about the undersides of what was then a bland middle-class city, we connected with Dick’s humor and his empathy for the disenfranchised. More important, Dave and Dick shared nearly identical histories. Both had grown up poor, fatherless, and left behind by young mothers to be raised by grandparents at the margins of society. And both were self-created men of letters. Different in looks, personality, and habits of living, they recognized their brotherhood.
My connection was more female. I fell in love with Dick’s voice, his warmth, his rhythms, his words. It was sexual attraction without the sex. I was an editor at the University of Washington Press at the time, a young mother trying out her wings, when an encounter with Hugo changed all of our lives. The month was July. The year 1964. Just back from a month in Italy, Hugo sat across from my desk, where I was checking page proofs of his poems in the anthology Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest.
“I’ve quit my job at Boeing,” he said. Dick’s laugh was infectious. There would be no more technical writing for this poet. “I’m going to be a pro-fess-or!” He rolled the syllables, relishing the word. “There’s a job for an English instructor. How’d you and Dave like to join us in Missoula?”
Dave got the teaching job and I quit my editor job, and off we went that fall with Eric and Steve, our German shepherd Sylvie, her ten mongrel pups, and cartons of books piled to the slide-open roof of our green Volkswagen bus. We never looked back. Montana would become Hugo’s final home, and ours, and the combination of poet and place inspired Dave and me to make our first film—The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, a black-and-white voiceover documentary of Dick reading his poems in the places that triggered them (he would later write a fine book about writing called The Triggering Town).
Drinking heavily and abandoned by his first wife, Barbara, Dick was often morose in those early years at the University of Montana, and so were his poems, and so was our film. But there was light in his darkness, for in Montana Hugo discovered a landscape filled with forgotten towns and the forgotten people he identified with, also back-alley watering holes he liked to call home, open prairies to get lost in, and rivers filled with willing trout.
Happiness of a different kind arrived for Dick a decade later. Under his doctor’s ultimatum—quit or die—Dick quit drinking. He met and married Ripley Schemm, a Montana plainswoman and poet, and through her gained a son and a daughter, a dog, horses, a ranch-style house on Rattlesnake Creek, and Ripley’s log cabin on the Teton. “I am good enough to own a home,” Hugo proclaimed in “At the Cabin,” a poem that celebrates his marriage. Home was no longer bars, or the loveless shack in White Center where he grew up. Home was a place he could own, like other professors and businessmen in good suits.
By 1977, Hugo had achieved national recognition and was writing and publishing as never before. “He’s getting full of himself,” said Bill Kittredge, who had become my lover and companion a few years after Dave died. Bill was mourning the bad-boy camaraderie he and Dick had shared during Dick’s drinking days, and was wary of the limits of domestication as well as the dangers of self-satisfaction.
“What’s wrong in being happy?” I countered, knowing full well that happiness comes and happiness goes. Dick was equally aware of the pitfalls of success. His psychic homeland kept calling him back, as he wrote in “The Only Bar in Dixon,” to “the old ways of defeat.”
Beth and I filmed Dick in his childhood home in White Center, the workingman’s suburb west of Seattle where he’d imbibed those self-defeating ways, but we were more focused on his Montana successes. We could not know that a few years after we finished our film, Dick would booby-trap his own good luck by plunging back into hard-core drinking. Then, vulnerable from radiation that had gotten him through lung cancer with one good lung, he was stricken with leukemia.
When I called him for the last time in his Seattle hospital room, Dick and I chatted about the World Series that he and I were watching on TV, and he joked about the color of his skin. “You know that old jingle about a purple cow— I’d rather see than be one? Well, that’s me,” he said. “I’m that purple cow.”
Dick died on October 22, 1982. Way too young (he was only fifty-nine). But at least he’d tasted that bite of contentment. Who knows what roads he might have taken if he’d survived another ten or twenty years? If he were with me this afternoon, we’d stop at the crossroads to Augusta and have a Beam ditch at the Bowman’s Corners bar. Dave and I rarely drank in bars before we met Dick. He inducted us into honky-tonk Montana. It was a life I never fully embraced—my nature is too controlling, my responsibilities too many, and my metabolism wrong. But sitting with Hugo belly-up to workingmen’s bars in Milltown or Troy or downtown Missoula, I understood why life gets wet in this dry region.
Dick rides with me now, these cascading grasslands bringing flashes of his round head and furrowed brow, the sensuous mouth set between grimace and grin, the bearlike body at rest. And his voice comes back to me, too—riveting, deep, rocketing. I open the window and recite the words of “Driving Montana,” the poem that opened our film so many years ago:
The day is a woman who loves you. Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
Spray from your car . . .
If the poem were mine, the enamored day might be a man. Perhaps a child or dog. “No matter,” Dick had said at the close of our film. “It’s being loved . . . loving . . . that’s what counts.”
I smile to myself, wondering if Dick had withheld a wink at those too-easy words. No matter. This afternoon is sun gold. The Rocky Mountain Front rears sharp as a pen-and-ink drawing on the horizon west. Deer graze along the Dearborn River, and magpies “spray” from my car. The grasslands that surround me are newly risen and yes, Dick, open. I want to shout to the wind, to the sun, “Good-bye life-as-usual, I’m truckin’!”