Alex and I are up in Idaho. It’s overcast and thunderstorms are forecast. Neither of us feels like going out on the boat, so we are just going to go for a nice long ride to The Bull River Parkway, a genuinely beautiful highway that runs roughly between Heron, Montana and Troy/Libby Montana through the Kootenai National Forest and along the Bull River, the Yaak River and some other rivers.
We got to Heron, Montana just in time to have a little snack at the Heron Sweet and General Store, served to us by a lovely young woman named Lauren and her very pleasant grandmother.
Then we got on the Bull River Parkway, which was just as magnificent as I had remembered it from maybe 15 years ago when I took Tommy on a ride up there when he was a little boy.
We had been told to look for the Ross Creek Cedars and sure enough, a sign pointed out a turn off for those Cedars.
It was a LONG turn off and extremely windy. I was starting to get dizzy from the altitude and the twists and turns. When we finally got to the parking lot for the Cross Creek Cedars-we had not passed a single car and there were no cars in the parking lot-I was too dazed to walk the roughly one mile to the Cedars grove. We turned around in our loyal, sturdy rented Cadillac and headed back to The Bull River Parkway.
Miracle! As we rounded a turn, we came to a scenic overlook that was the most expansive, magnificent sight I have ever seen. Forests that went on forever. An immense valley floor of trees that rose to a stupendous mountain with snow on the top in August. We stopped to take pictures and could hear the rushing sound of Ross Creek far below us.
It was stupefyingly gorgeous. I later learned that this was the Cabinet Mountains National Wilderness, that goes on almost to Libby. It has about 95,000 acres-and that’s just a tiny sliver of the Kootenai National Forest. The beauty here is beyond reason.
But how could anyone find his way in that forest? How could you keep from being eaten by bears and mosquitoes? Or snakes? I like looking at The Wilderness but, as my wife says, “a little wilderness goes a long way.”
We got down to The Bull River Parkway and headed north. We passed a café that was about halfway along the parkway. Its door was open and so I went in (Alex stayed in the car).
As I walked in, I saw a bewildering array of video games, a pool table, a room set up with a stage and chairs for music, and several middle aged men at the bar. One stared at me intently. There was also an immense old Labrador Retriever in the floor.
“That’s a big dog,” I said cheerily to the man staring at me.
“He’s there to keep the riff-raff out,” said the man in a distinctly unfriendly voice.
“I see,” I said amiably. “I guess it’s not working because here I am.”
The man drank a huge draft of his beer and said, “We don’t see too many Jewish people here.”
(I sort of thought that was coming. I had been having eerie feelings all day long and this man had a number of empty beer mugs in front of him.)
“I wonder why that is,” I said to him.
“Jewish people like civilization,” he said. “They don’t like wilderness.”
“True enough,” I said, “but I just saw an amazing wilderness view and it’s fabulous. It amazes me that there aren’t more tourists here.”
“There are enough,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Is this your bar?”
The man sitting behind him, with a MUCH friendlier look on his face said that it was his bar. “We have country music some weekends,” the owner said.
A very sweet looking bartending woman appeared and took my order. A ginger ale. My beer drinking interlocutor said scornfully, “A ginger ale.”
“Yes, a ginger ale or Sprite will do fine.”
“We have very good bar food,” said the beer drinking man. “You should stay for dinner.”
I asked the man what he did there. He told me had spent more than twenty years in The Air Force and then retired and worked “…as a management geek…” as he put it for Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Then he just quit to take care of his aging father.
We talked about railroads and Warren Buffett for a while, and then he went outside with a man who had been playing pool nearby. Apparently, as my wife later told me, he said, “There’s a Jewish fellow in there. Naturally, this Cadillac is his.” (Of course it was rented but I have a number of other Cadillacs. I wish we could have discussed that. Did he want me to drive a Bentley? A truck?)
We talked again about why Jews like civilization. No bears, said I. He told me that if a bear came after me, even if I were in my car, the bear could just break the glass and grab me. Sounded as if he liked the idea. He told me he had seen me on TV. “I know who you are,” he said, as if that were a bad thing.
However, again, he asked me to stay for dinner. I politely declined. Meanwhile, the small number of men and women in the bar/casino were all gathering around me to get their pictures taken. I don’t think he liked that.
I bid farewell to my beer drinking companion and got my pictures taken. One of the women who got her picture with me was from The Palmetto State. We talked about South Carolina and Presbyterian College. Then we left. In my Cadillac. Good car to drive, after a war.
My wife was extremely relieved to leave, and so was I. It was a scene right out of a sort of cheesy movie about small town racists. “Imagine what it was like for the civil rights workers in Mississippi,” said my wife.
“Yes,” I said. “They got killed.”
On the other hand, the beer drinking AF vet, BNSF vet was not really a bad guy. He was good to his father. Had served his country a lot more than I have. And had urged me to stay for dinner. And had given me his best judgment about the bears. Also told me about someone who owned The Montana Railroad. He was a bit of a racist, but that’s not unusual. Still, it was not a good situation.
About five minutes down the road, it got worse.
As I was rounding a curve on the two lane highway, an immense semi headed towards me, veering out of his lane, clearly losing control. By a miracle, he somehow regained control before he killed Alex and me. Now, that was terrifying. I was not really scared at the bar because all but one person were friendly. But that truck-that was scary.
Bad kharma right around here, I would say.
Or maybe good kharma. After all, we survived to tell the tale.
A few minutes later, we came to the very small town of Troy. We stopped at an Exxon station and got gasoline, and lots of locals came over to get their pictures taken with me. I told one strong looking young fellow about our incident at the café. “We don’t stop at that place,” he said. “We might slow down, but we don’t stop.”
We drove the rest of the way home without further excitement. I wondered what stories that man at the bar would tell about the day he took on the famous Jew from the media and the big city. Still, as I said, in many ways, he was a much more admirable person than I am — maybe in almost all ways. I looked up the area on the Internet. Lots of Aryan Nations and Montana Militia activity, so the Internet said. But I don’t believe it. That fellow was just having a bad day. I think I’ll go back there for country music nights. Camp out back. Drive there in my Cadillac. Have some ginger ale. Yippee. As for that man at the bar, he’s in a very long line of anti-Semites. Not that exclusive a club.