We’ll Always Have Choteau

What $58 per night gets you at the Gunther Motel in Choteau, Montana, out on the plains just east of the Rockies: two double beds, a television, a phone, an alarm clock, a full-sized refrigerator, a dish of butter in the refrigerator, a yellow formica table, a couple of mismatched plates, a microwave oven, an actual hot plate, and a coffee maker.

What it does not get you: those little one-pot pouches of coffee you may have grown accustomed to at the Super 8s along the highway, nor any other kind of coffee, nor cups, coffee or otherwise, disposable or otherwise.

No coffee filters, either.

There are however two baskets of fake flowers, two paintings of baskets of flowers, two shadowboxes of fake flowers, and a vase of fake flowers. There is flowered wallpaper in the bathroom and an applique sticker of flowers on the bathroom mirror. Knotty pine paneling. A small desk. A small wing chair.

They named the town after the French-Canadian trapper Pierre Chouteau in 1888. It seems like the kind of town where people might be secretly proud that they misspelled his name. They built the courthouse in 1906, the first bank in 1919. They put off building the Roxy until just after the war, 1946, probably a good year for movies. This week, the Roxy features The Game Plan, starring wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a football player who eventually learns that a real man isn’t afraid to show his feelings and cook and do other things that real men are alleged not to. It is one of those movies where these lessons are taught by a little girl and, in a subvariation followed in this case, a dog. On the poster that hangs under glass by the Roxy’s door, the little girl is wearing a tutu and has her arms crossed, and Johnson is holding a fat beagle awkwardly toward the camera, eyes wide, as if he is wondering how he got there.

Saturday evening and the restaurant under the big yellow awning on main street, John Henry’s, is bustling. The hunters are in early and will go to bed early, but at five thirty they are tucking into the beef stroganoff special for $7.99, a large party of them ranged around several tables pushed together, their camouflaged caps tilted far back on their heads, their long-underwear sleeves pushed up above their elbows, their eyes fixed on the Iowa State game on two glowing flat-screen televisions on the wall and another one over the bar so that it’s everywhere you turn. The bartender is out of the medium-sized beer glasses so I am sipping mine from a mug the size of an iced-tea pitcher. The old man next to us at the bar is eating the beef stroganoff special alone. The waitress asks him about his foot, and he says it’s getting better. “Want to see it?” he asks her.

Choteau is so quiet that we can hear the beating wings of a flock of birds passing overhead as we walk back to the motel. A cold wind is arriving in town for the night. Back at the room, icy breezes gust through and around the shoddily installed air conditioner in the window above the bed. I walk back out into the dark gravel roundabout to the car for water bottles so that we’ll have something to pour the wine into and the temperature feels like it has already dropped ten degrees. While A. pours the wine I lie on the floor by the gas-powered heater and remove its access panel and turn the dial next to the pilot light until blue flames leap to life in its guts. Soon the room is full of a dry parching heat. We grow drowsy watching The Wizard of Oz on television.

I can never sleep the first night in a new bed. The dead wind-kicked leaves scratch at the window. The heater clangs and rattles throughout its cycle as its metal parts expand and contract. At one a.m. I turn it off. By dawn, when the hunters are slamming the doors of their trucks out in the roundabout, the cold has retaken the room. We huddle together in bed for warmth and wait for the sun to rise. Then we slip out of bed, fire up the heater, and start getting out the breakfast things.

The manager calls the room at 10:45 to remind us that checkout time is 11:00 and asks if we want to stay another night. The maids are already hard at work as we pull the car out of the gravel roundabout, all the room doors open to the brisk morning air, no one else staying another night either, from the looks of it. We park by the Ace Hardware next to the storefront New Life Church and walk north, past the looming silver silos in the train yard and across the traffic circle where the courthouse sits and then on into the downtown. The streets are empty, the Dinosaur Museum is closed. A sun-faded pink tricycle sits in front of a modest house with a well-kept yard. Down at the Bella Vista, the motel that advertises a “game cleaning area,” big dusty pickups sit with open doors in front of the little cabins, and what topics of conversation are to be found late in the night during hunting season around the picnic table under the canopy out on the lawn?

A cattle truck makes its slow clanking way down the street, its smell taking even longer to pass. A pickup drives by with an ATV in its bed. There is a fresh-killed deer lashed to the ATV, splayed wide open, the cavity where its guts used to be gaping bloody and suprised at the sky.

The Mountain Top Surf Club is closed.

I am not insensible to the tug of a small town but when I stop and think I realize that it’s really the tug of small towns as portrayed in old radio shows and on TV, where the ominous downsides of everyone knowing everyone else are ignored and even the town drunk is friendly and not sad. Mainly I feel unease in a place like Choteau, a strong sense of being an outsider in a place that isn’t used to them. Well, Sheriff, they were walking all over town and they took pictures of the rail yard which is just what terrorists would be interested in, isn’t it. It seems strange to fear my fellow citizens but no less strange to think that the town of Choteau is really in the same country as, say, Baltimore, or even Missoula for that matter. Which is not to sneer at Choteau but simply to recognize how entirely differently life is lived here than it is in the places I’m used to: different rhythms, different fun, different means of surviving from one year to the next, and these vast open spaces rushing at you from all sides.

Still, off-balance makes for good travel, if by “travel” you understand that I mean something different from what I’m talking about when I say “I could use a vacation.” As it turned out, we spent less than 24 hours in Choteau, and yet, for me, our time there was infused with a spirit of discovery and adventure that surprised me, given how mundane our activities were: watching television in the motel room, having a drink in a restaurant, and walking slowly from one end of the town to the other. I was reminded of a book I come back to from time to time, Alain de Boton’s The Art of Travel, in which de Boton argues that the true pleasures of travel derive less from the destination than from the “traveling mind-set,” of which “receptivity might be said to be [the] chief characteristic.”

“Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details… We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s shop unusually fascinating…”

Speaking as one who, when visiting family in Germany, always enjoyed going to supermarkets at least as much as going to castles, de Boton’s point here rings true, and it is in these moments of pure curiosity that I forget myself and live in the moment. It is less important what I am looking at than that I am looking, and it’s easier to look when I don’t already know the explanation and interpretation. Travel for information, edification – this must involve certain set destinations. But travel for pleasure of the kind I’m describing: it’s as easy to find in a town like Choteau as anywhere, and perhaps even easier.

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