The memorial service for poor Max Lentz wasn’t the only connection between Missoula and West Virginia a week and a half ago. My parents, who recently moved from the longtime family home in the D.C. suburbs to a small college town in West Virginia, were here in Missoula for a visit. As everyone knows, there’s nothing like hosting out-of-town guests to help you see your surroundings in a new light. Of course, since my wife and I only arrived here in August, it’s not like we’re quite used to the place ourselves yet. But more on that in a minute. Meanwhile, it will help you understand what I’m about to write if you know that – in the way of many western U.S. towns – there are two mammoth white letters inscribed on the sides of two mountains on Missoula’s eastern edge, an “L” on Mount Jumbo and an “M” on Mt. Sentinel, so large that they are visible throughout the town and for miles beyond.
Now back to Max Lentz. The Missoula native attended high school at World Class Kayak Academy here in town. (This is as reported in the Missoulian.) Max was on an academy kayaking trip to West Virginia earlier this month when he attempted to navigate a section of rapids on the Upper Gauley River. The seventeen-year-old – described by one of his teachers as a highly skilled kayaker – was following a standard route, a route he had just watched other kayakers use without incident. But as Max slid through the chute, his kayak nosed into a rock crack and became wedged there, and the force of the rushing water held him down even as it batted his would-be rescuers away again and again from their desperate efforts to pull him free. The rescue, which commenced within minutes, eventually turned into a recovery, and four hours passed before his body could be pried from the river’s grip.
My parents set out across the country by train at just about the exact same time Max and his schoolmates must have boarded their plane for West Virginia. My parents traveled by sleeper car, the last civilized means of travel left to us. (Actually, my mother says that the coach seats didn’t look bad, either – remember, this is a different train from, say, the commuters that ply the D.C.-New York line. Really different. When we dropped them off at the Essex station near Glacier National Park at the end of the week, and I got my first up-close look at their train, it was like a silver castle rolling by on wheels, or something out of the 1950s-era Robert Heinlein/Airstream-trailer-influenced vision of the spaceships that we were all supposed to be driving by now. It’s called the Empire Builder, which seemed appropriate, even if – with our proconsuls and legions posted to Mesopotamia – it’s a name that makes you squirm just a little.)
A. and I drove up on Friday and met my parents at the Izaak Walton Inn near the little “town” of Essex, on the fringe of Glacier National Park. The inn has been in operation since the 1920s and functions almost as the de facto train station. The staff has to run out back and wave to the trains as they go by. The motto on the inn’s promotional materials is “Where time slows down and lets you catch up.” We caught up by reading in the lobby by the fire, walking in the woods, and taking leisurely meals in the inn’s restaurant, where a fine huckleberry cobbler is to be had.
Back in Missoula, with my parents quartered for the week in our guest room, we fell into a similarly relaxed routine. A. was off to work each day, of course. I would put in a few hours myself, then my parents and I would drive out to explore. We took walks, meandered through the UM campus, enjoyed lunch at Dauphine’s. One afternoon we stopped to read the names on the war-memorial statue by the grand old courthouse. As I hinted above, it was a little strange to be showing my parents around a town I barely feel like I know myself. They asked questions, and either I wouldn’t know the precise answer or my response took the form of pedantic, anthropological theories: “Well, I believe this may date back to the Populist era of the late 1800s…” Missoula doesn’t feel like home yet, and I don’t know if it ever will. Maybe it’s not dirty enough.
A week after they arrived, it was time to put my parents back on the train so that they could continue on their way to San Francisco, where my brother is now living. We collected A. from work a little early and drove back up to the Glacier National Park area, two and a half hours along winding blacktop, through the Indian reservations, past immense Flathead Lake, gazing ahead at mountaintops disappearing into and then poking out of the tops of the clouds. On the hillsides, thousands of fir trees poked up at the sky, shaped like sharpened pencils stuck point upward in the rocky ground.
My parents were the only ones boarding at West Glacier, where the station – which really only functions as a bookstore these days, apparently – closes each day at 4:30 p.m. So we waited for the 8:21 to Seattle in the dark, bundled against the cold, leaning under the station overhang to get out of the rain. While we waited, two freight trains idled on the tracks in front of us, and it was possible to imagine that there had been some sort of mixup, that my parents’ train couldn’t possibly make it through, or that it would slide past on an outer track and forget to collect these two passengers. But at the last minute the freights rumbled away and the aforementioned silver, castle-like, two-story glory of a train eased into view. A door opened in the side and a conductor popped out and asked for my parents by name. We hugged goodbye in the rain and watched them settle into their berth, two seats facing each other by a lighted window that suspended them before us in the dark, as if on a television screen. Then the train pulled away into the trees, and there was nothing to look at but the rain and the dark shapes of the trees in the park.
The first time I saw the name “Max Lentz” was on a riverfront stroll with my parents on their first day in Missoula, along the path in Caras Park. The name was written on a card affixed to a large vase of flowers that someone had left by the path near Brennan’s Wave, the brief bump of rapids in the downtown section of the river, where the kayakers practice. At that moment, “Max Lentz” didn’t mean anything to me, but I must have marked the name in some corner of my subconscious, because “Lentz” sounded familiar a few days later when my mother observed white letters spelling it out high on the side of Mount Jumbo. The “L” is always there, of course, but – sure enough – as we drove up Broadway from the UM campus on a sunny afternoon, we could see the smaller letters spelling out the rest of the name, small enough that it seemed possible, though unlikely, that they’d always been there and I just hadn’t noticed them yet. After my parents left, I read in the paper that his friends had put the letters there, just for a day or two, and that the “M” on Mt. Sentinel had likewise been amended briefly to read “Max.”
My mother and I had just walked the trail up to the “M” (letters “a” and “x” had not made their appearance yet). It was a strenuous walk, back and forth across steep switchbacks, pitched at an angle so that it was almost like walking up stairs the whole way up. We encountered a lot of other hikers. The only one panting worse than us was a black dog with white eye patches. From the trail and from the base of the “M” we had gazed out over Missoula, the streets of the university district marked out by neat rows of trees now wearing their final golden coats before winter. Looking over at Mt. Jumbo, my mother had asked what the “L” stood for.
I didn’t know, I told her. I just got here myself.
For Lentz, back on the Upper Gauley River, October 5th started out as just another day of doing what he loved. Then thump, his kayak inexplicably came to a stop and suddenly all of this water was rushing over him. I’ll leave it to you find your own lesson in this, but I’m just glad that I got to see my parents last week. All we know for sure about this uncertain world is that it is always later than you think.