I step onto the balcony – the “deck” – before dawn, a cup of coffee in my hand. It is not unusual to smell smoke on the air here, but the campfire-like whiff I first detected through the open living-room window seems closer, more urgent, than usual. Could a forest fire be raging its way up the hill? (It would be more of a subdivision fire, I suppose.) I stand on the balcony sniffing at the wind and scanning the darkness for flames, but, after the first few seconds, I can no longer recapture the scent, and the darkness is broken only by porch lights on the hill side below and tiny headlights blinking through the trees all the way down on Route 93. The rising sun is just hitting the clouds above me, and they glow faintly, marshmallow-like in color and texture, more the idea of clouds than the real thing. From a neighbor’s yard comes the staccato build, climax and repeat of a sprinkler.
There is a Safeway here, just as there was one in Baltimore. (I hear they have them all over.) But this Missoula one has achieved the upscale, country-store aesthetic that the one in Baltimore only gestures at: the faux hardwood floors and sleek service counters are the same, but the Missoula Safeway is smaller, the aisles are narrower, and the shelves of wine next to the display of summer sausage and gourmet cold-cuts just make me want to spend money. They’re ready to take my money, too: there is a Starbuck’s kiosk with cafe seating; there are extensive prepared-foods displays (including “China Express,” offering chow mein, pot stickers and egg rolls); and of course there is all that beer and wine. But we are on a budget and must answer to our spreadsheet, so none of that for us.
Well, maybe just a little.
At a rough estimate, I’d say that the Missoula Safeway is about a third the size of the Baltimore Safeway. Maybe half. Let’s say half. This will be useful for comparison’s sake, for the sake of what the comparison can tell us about the differences between Baltimore and Missoula. For instance, in a store half the size of the one in Baltimore, we find approximately the same amount of produce but less than a third of an aisle of chips, pretzels, popcorn, etc. (with the aisles being shorter here, anyway). The meat department looks about the same size here as in Baltimore, if you take away the big floor bins that the Baltimore store has. The soda display stretches about the length of an aisle, not the whole length, the last tenth of the aisle given over to those pretend-it’s-not-soda “juices” and “sport drinks” and that sort of thing. Definitely a smaller overall proportion than in Baltimore. For what it’s worth.
Noted in passing: “Frosty Paws Dog Ice Cream Treat,” $4.19, in a special cooler in the pet-supplies aisle. Also, the floral department is called “Poetry in Bloom.” (I can’t remember if the one in Baltimore has a name.)
Most of the checkstand clerks and baggers and self-stockers here in Missoula are either in or were just in high school, maybe college, which just feels right, somehow. It also feels as if they actually mean it when they ask if you are finding everything you need. To my recollection, only people wearing ties ever ask you that in the Baltimore Safeway, but here the squeaky-voiced teenager in the apron balancing an arm load of canned tomatoes does it, too. He understands that it’s for the team, and who doesn’t want to help out the team? (The checkstand clerks also ask, for that matter, only in the past tense: “did you find everything okay?” What will they do if you say “no”? Send someone to look for it?)
On a Sunday afternoon, we park on the university campus and walk across the Clark Fork River on one of the foot bridges to Wow, a “wingery” and micro-brew pub plying the student trade. Across the river, we watch two cops approach two sunbathing women in a pincers-style “contact and cover” formation. They all talk briefly. The women remain sitting on their blanket. The cops leave, having determined whether or not the women have a thing for uniforms.
As we stroll back across the foot bridge, we are treated to the gentle singing of the hobos from their camp on the river bank.
Labor Day, and A. and I have driven to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, an hour and a half along a winding two-lane blacktop through fir forests, just over the Idaho border into Pacific Time. We are sitting in a soaking pool, leaning back, looking at the tops of the tall cedars waving gently against the sky, listening to the serenade of the angry red squirrels, the water in the main creek burbling loudly away on its thousand-year rock-smoothing mission, and I’m thinking, one day I’ll get used to this?
I must say that doesn’t feel likely.