Tuesday, October 9.

DSC 0057On Friday it finally dawned on me that, for all the locals’ talk about recent winters being “much warmer than usual,” winter here will be nothing to take lightly.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s been getting cool already, temperatures dropping into the thirties at night and rising back into the fifties – occasionally maybe only the forties – during the day. When I first get up to type these entries I’m bundled in sweat pants, shirt, bathrobe, etc. I get dressed later in the morning, and in recent days I’ve found that jeans and a long-sleeved shirt isn’t always enough to keep me warm, even inside at my desk. The last few days of last week I ended up putting on a watch cap and my new vest (which I should tell you more about) just to get me through the late morning and early afternoon. Sutton, you ask, why not turn on the heat? And I answer two things. First, it’s only October, and things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better, so we don’t want to fall back on having heat too early. (What if, in the heart of winter, the heat doesn’t feel like enough as a result?) Second, and this is related to the first point, this house doesn’t have central heat, it has baseboard heaters, each controlled individually. Once we start using these things, I’m sure they won’t be that difficult to deal with, but for now they seem like an impossible pain in the ass, and that’s kept us from firing them up. It will also be fun to see the resulting electric bills once we finally do, although of course by “fun” I mean “the opposite of fun.”

Anyway, Friday was a cold, gray, drizzly day. I set out for class in a turtleneck (yes, me and Al Gore), my new vest, a light jacket (the one with the elbow patches, which I wear to look academic so that no one on campus suspects me for the interloper I am), a wool watch cap, plus the usual pants, shoes, etc. Not the warmest outfit I could have mustered, but still, it’s only October. As I made my hunched way across campus, collar turned up against the rain, I really felt cold. I looked at my “fellow” students and tried to gauge their reactions to the weather. Were they behaving as though the weather had finally turned?

Let’s just say I saw a lot of flip flops. I think it’s going to be a cold winter.

Friday’s lecture topic was the late-1800s feud between Montana copper baron Marcus Daly and William A. Clark (as in, I guess, the Clark Fork River that runs through the middle of town – one fun thing about studying history is learning the meanings behind all of the local place names), another captain of Montana industry. Both men had money, but the professor described Clark as “one of the richest men in the world at the time”; Daly was the founder of the Anaconda Mining Company, which at one point employed half of all Montanans. Historians don’t agree (as usual) as to the reason for the feud, but it was probably related to bad business dealings/rivalries and/or the fact that Daly was Irish Catholic and Clark Scottish Protestant (two classes of people not generally given to holding hands and singing rounds of “Kumbaya” together), not to mention Clark’s frequent public disparagement of one of Daly’s close friends and business partners, a man of Middle Eastern descent (!), as a “nigger.” Anyway, Clark would have given anything to become Montana’s first U.S. Senator, and Daly would have given anything to stop him. And later, after a pretty significant fight over that issue – a fight that grievously corrupted Montana politics for years and pretty much made the state a nationwide laughingstock – Daly would have given anything for “his” town of Anaconda to be named the state capital, while, basically to spite him, Clark wanted it to be Helena. Between the two men, over $1 million was expended in bribes, gifts (liquor and cigars), and advertising intended to shift public opinion on this issue one way or the other. But, when the vote came, people simply voted for the town closest to where they lived. Helena, boasting more residents, took the day, and all of that money turned out to have been spent for naught.

In the evening, I drove back to campus to pick A. up and we headed down to a barbecue being thrown by the Department of Biological Sciences in Kiwanis Park, close to downtown. It was still rainy and cold, but there was a pavilion, and, in addition to the various grills smoking away, someone had lit a fire in one of these saucer-shaped backyard-fire containers that seem to be all the rage these days, and so there was a spark of warm cheer to the event. Or was that because of the keg of beer? We spent a long time talking to a colleague of A.’s, and I learned that he has been teaching himself how to hunt with a bow (a traditional bow, no less). He plans a hunting trip soon, solo, to try his hand at bow hunting for elk, and another one to help a friend take a deer. The friend will be using a rifle, and he will help his friend flush the deer. I asked if I could tag along for the latter trip, and he said he didn’t see why not.

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This barbecue was unusual, so far in our Missoula sojourn, in that it involved no bear sightings. Not that we really expected there to be bears, since we were downtown and surrounded on all sides by either residential areas or the downtown business district, but it is a fact that, out of three barbecues we’ve been to so far, bears were spotted at two of them. And it is a fact that the area seems to be absolutely crawling with bears. I can’t be bothered to go back and make a formal study, but I’m pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that The Missoulian has carried at least one bear-related story per day for weeks. Not all of these involve actual attacks, but, when they don’t, the subject is the increasing encroachment by bears into areas they once steered clear of. This is their hyper feeding season, when they desperately try to pack on the pounds in order to be able to hibernate all the way through the winter, and of course there is less and less food for them as the planet continues its not-so-slow slide into environmental ruin. I already mentioned the bear shot in Idaho a few weeks back, the first grizzly spotted there since 1946. An update on that story informs us that this bear can be determined through genetic evidence to have traveled over 160 miles to reach that area, which can partly be chalked up to the wanderlust that some grizzlies feel (though this wandering was over three times longer than what’s typical), but of course food scarcity has to be taken into account as well.

The bear stories made such an impression on me that, for this past weekend’s trip to Glacier National Park (on which more later), I decided to pick up a can of bear spray, i.e., pepper spray specially formulated for use against bears (I think mainly because it discharges in a 30-foot “shotgun-cloud” pattern). I wondered if I were being paranoid. We never ran into any bears, as it turned out (well, just the one dressed as a Montana State Trooper in the hotel lobby, but he seemed friendly enough), but just this morning I was leafing through The Missoulian when I saw this headline: “Carroll Student Attacked by Bear.” (It seemed intent on eating him, until a friend fired a pistol and it ran off.) And on the article’s jump page, there was a smaller item about a hunter in Yellowstone who killed another attacking grizzly with a pistol, which, from everything I’ve heard on the subject of shooting grizzlies using anything other than a powerful rifle, is really only possible if you can aim your shot up through the roof of the bear’s open mouth. (In Into the Woods, author Bill Bryson, while he is outfitting himself to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, overhears a gun-store owner offer to file the sights off of the handgun that a customer has just announced he is purchasing for bear defense, because – the gun-store owner explains – it will then hurt less when the bear takes it away and shoves it up the guy’s ass.) And last night I was flipping through the local “alt-weekly,” the Missoula Independent, where I saw mention of “frequent black-bear sightings” in town, especially in yards that boast unharvested apple trees and, of course, around unsecured trash cans. And yesterday evening, we were walking on a trail through Moose Can Gully, a quarter-mile from the house, surrounded on all sides by houses, when two kids we encountered (chopping down trees with an axe, curiously enough) told us excitedly that they had seen bear scat and “signs” in the gully. So now, I’ve gone from wondering if I were being paranoid in planning to take bear spray along to Glacier, to wondering if I should carry it with me at all times.

Oh, and, in other news, a sex offender disappeared from his work-release job yesterday. The article was headlined “Search is on for escaped sex offender,” but I think it should have read “Madman on the loose” because that’s the guy’s actual last name.

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