When we lived in Montana I started writing a book that was to be called “Trying Montana,” about our experiences there. I never finished it, although several chapters are complete, and some of those have been recast as essays and published elsewhere over the years since we left that great state and its wonderful people. This essay, which was to have been Chapter Six, existed as a story in my head that has grown in the telling until the last few days, when it began banging on the back of my eyeballs to be let out.
The Code of the West
The Canadian border is a left out the driveway and a lonely 45 miles north. My next-door neighbor on Highway 93, here where neighbors truly matter, has the best last name. He is a good man, and of generous nature. The joy he takes in just about everything is reflected in his dark eyes, which shine almost all the time.
His name is Larry Shining and he is what is known hereabouts as a “rail.” He works for the Burlington Northern Railroad out of Whitefish. It runs freight out of the depot there, about 20 south of our side-by-side properties, where you can also catch Amtrak on its transcontinental High Line runs. Shining mostly pulls long freight trains east, over the Great Divide, with those powerful, big green locomotives.
Shining says he hasn’t read more than two or three-dozen books since high school, but I know he is wise in the ways of horses and of fish, because he had mastered “The Board.”
As anyone who has spent time in the woods knows, being good at catching fish and killing animals for food, and especially being good with horses, takes enormous amounts of time. It is like piano or violin — you can’t expect to play a concerto the first time you go elk hunting.
Being successful at a union railroad job takes more than knowing how to run locomotives on some of the most treacherous track in the High Country, although he did know all about that. The real expert “rails” — and Shining was one — were maestros of The Board, the arcane, and possibly mystical methodology of seniority positioning that determines when you would be working and what you would be doing when you worked.
If you could hold your place on The Board, or bid spots on the “Extra Board,” which tracked vacations and days off — and who filled in for those who were gone — you could manage to work very few days each month and still get paid your full-time railroad wages anyway.
So Shining had two of the basic necessary ingredients of happiness: Time and a regular paycheck. All I had was time, so we spent lots of it together as a deep friendship grew. I miss him.
The first time I saw Shining was late one day at the acreage we had purchased, which then only contained a roof and some framing which suggested what might become a house. I think we were still bunking in our camper alongside the north wall, while struggling with making one end of the house warm enough to sleep in. We were all doing something out front, when he came across the field our properties shared.
Shining was in full regalia. He wore a fur vest and a single-action Ruger .44-caliber revolver in a well-used breakaway holster, and his hat had no nonsense about it. He trotted Flash, his magnificent and perfectly trained paint gelding, up our driveway like something out of Bill Cody’s circus. He was of medium height, with big hands, a full black beard streaked with grey, and black hair worn just over his collar.
Only two things kept him from seeming menacing. One was the sparkle of mirth shining in his eyes, which peered actively out from under the brim of his Stetson. The other was the large round red tin marked “Cookies,” in white lettering, which leaned against the saddle horn to rest across his thighs.
“Howdy, new neighbors,” out of anyone else’s mouth would have sounded affected. “Take these cookies Jackie sent over for you,” he said, and gesturing at our eldest son Robbie added, “and I’ll give the boy a ride.”
I learned later that Shining’s wife Jackie had survived a brain tumor and two operations involving going inside her skull. She smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day, would put great food in front of you at any hour — as long as it was high-calorie and high-cholesterol and piled high on your plate — and knew what she claimed was the “woman” secret of how much sugar, and just how many chocolate chips a cookie needed to contain in order to be truly welcome in your mouth.
Our families grew close. Their older boy was away in the army, but their high-schooler, Cody, baby-sat for us. We’d watch television on their big screen TV (we didn’t have a satellite dish) and Shining and I caught lots of fish and killed the occasional bird or rabbit together to be shared at table.
Our camaraderie was only limited by the fact that I didn’t know how to ride, so Shining decided to educate me in the ways of horses. Flash, the paint, shared the pasture behind Shining’s house with Missy, a buckskin mare that had been Jackie’s mount until she gave up riding when the cancer came.
I felt nothing but fear standing alongside Missy while learning about saddle, girth and bridle. She had no meanness in her, but was a large animal and surely knew that I didn’t have a clue.
I was a willing, if inept pupil. Shining was a good teacher. He believed in learning full-tilt. Sort of the “throw them in to teach swimming school.” Soon after I managed to stay astride Missy to ride around the pasture a few lessons in a row, an all-day expedition involving trailering the horses, fly rods and a high mountain trail was scheduled.
I was almost killed on the trip. Well almost. But it was also on that day that I learned about The Code of the West.
A few hours before dawn we hitched Shining’s horse trailer up to “Big Red,” his 3/4-ton Ford 4X4 pickup truck, loaded Flash and Missy and our gear, and drove out past Red Meadow Lake into National Forest land along the west bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The river there is the boundary of the northwest corner of Glacier National Park.
Shining knew these roads from the time his mastering of The Board had granted him. We came to the end of a logging road that disappeared into some huge boulders, unloaded the horses, saddled up and headed down a well-worn trail into heavy timber. As we rode, in high spirits and anticipation of a great day of fishing, the terrain began to climb, and by full daylight we were winding our way up a steep, switch-backing trail that hugged a hill-side on rein-hands, and dropped hundreds of feet into a boulder-strewn ravine on our right.
I began to think that the trail was beyond my almost non-existent skills as a horseman and voiced those feeling to Shining, who was riding ahead as we made our single-file way up, and up. He reassured me. First by saying that in about a half mile the trail would flatten and soon thereafter would turn away from the ravine — which was terrifying every time I glanced down into it — into a birch and aspen-wooded bowl where we’d find the mountain lake that was our destination. Secondly, he laughed, “Missy doesn’t want to fall down that ravine anymore than you do. Just keep the reins slack and give her head. She knows how to walk up a hill without falling down.”
A few minutes later, as he predicted, the slope began to flatten, although the trail still dropped away steeply on my right. Shining had ridden a bit ahead, and just then I heard him call, “Get down, get down,” and I saw him lay his body across Flash’s neck to pass under a giant larch tree that had fallen across the trail.
I followed, and lay as flat as I could across Missy’s warm neck, gripping her mane. As we passed under, I felt the tree scrape across my back, as I was jammed between horse and tree. Missy did what any smart horse would do. She stopped, breathed some, and started backing up.
The rest I know because Shining explained it to me later, as it all happened in an instant.
As Missy backed out from under, the tree began to scrape me forward and dragged me out of the saddle over her neck and head, and I began to fall. As I fell, Missy’s hind legs went off the trail and she began to fall off the edge. All I could think about was what Shining had drilled into me during those riding lessons in the front pasture. “If you fall, whatever you do, try not to let go of the reins!”
I held the reins with a strength born of fear, and as Missy went over the edge she dragged me right down with her. At one point, flat on my stomach, arms outstretched, as I was tumbling downhill I remember looking right into her face and thinking that her eyes were beautiful.
About then, Missy managed to regain her footing, and charged back up the hill. As she came past, I threw an arm up to protect myself, got it snagged in a stirrup and was dragged back up onto the path, where Shining calmly grabbed her bridle, looked down at me and said, “Come on. Let’s walk the rest of the way, it’s not far.”
A few minutes later, we were standing in a clearing in the woods. Shining handed me a canteen and as I drank, was examining Missy, who aside from some scratches on her hindquarters, was unscathed.
I was wrecked. My jacket was torn where it had protected me from the tree. I had bleeding cuts and what later grew to respectable bruises, and I was filthy — covered hat to boots in dirt from having been dragged off the trail, through rocks and bushes and back up again. I still had my hat, although it was bent and dirty. I came to understand later that not losing my hat was among the few creditable things I did that day.
After we all caught breath, Shining looked me up and down and asked: “So, why didn’t you get down like I told you?” I gaped at him and replied that I had done my best leaning onto Missy’s neck and went on to complain about friends who — despite their brilliant horsemanship — didn’t know enough not to take a beginner like me on such a trail. He took my hat then, straightened it, and brushed at it some with his big hands. He gave it back to me. “You didn’t bad. You’re OK, Missy’s OK and you never let go of her reins. Let’s mount up and get down to the fish.”
Just then we heard bells.
Up the trail from the lake came two hikers, a boy and a girl, maybe college-aged, but young. They were dressed out of the L.L. Bean catalog, and had bear bells tied to their expandable graphite walking sticks with pieces of bright red ribbon. You just knew they had granola in their matching green backpacks, which were topped with tightly rolled sleeping bags in scarlet stuff sacks. They stopped a few feet away, giving off the sweet aroma of marijuana, took in the scratched up horse, my bedraggled and bloodied appearance, and asked if we needed help, and whether everything was “copasetic.”
I answered that I was OK and explained, in great detail, about the tree across the trail, getting jammed underneath it; Missy’s escape dragging me down the cliff, and my miraculous escape by accidentally grabbing her stirrup. And as I told the tale, I watched Shining scrape the toe of one cowboy boot through the dirt and across the toe of the other boot. The he’d stop, switch feet, and scrape the toe of that boot through the dirt to heap it on the toe that was still. And back and worth in an almost hypnotic pattern than oozed unhappiness in a taciturn cowboy way.
The hikers left. “Peace,” they said, walking away, as Shining kept scraping his boot toes through the dirt.
“What are you doing with your feet?” I asked. He didn’t look up, just kept pushing dirt with his boots. A minute went by, and he stopped, looked at me, squared his hat on his head, and said: “You Broke The Code of The West.”
“What the Hell are you talking about,” I said. “You told those granola-heads what happened,” Shining answered. And then he explained. I wish I could remember his exact words, but it was something like this:
When you get unsaddled, or fall from your horse, like you just did, or any small tragedy occurs, The Code of The West requires that it was caused by the attack of a grizzly bear, or a mountain lion, or because lightning struck the side of the mountain out of a clear blue sky which naturally spooked your horses, or there was a really big rattlesnake. And if you can’t think of anything good like that to say you can always point up at the sky and mumble something about a flying saucer! But never, ever, tell anyone that you messed up and just fell off your horse. What will people think?
Then he laughed and we went fishing. We caught a bunch of grayling, brought them home without further incident, got his family and mine together and cooked up a bunch dipped in egg, rolled in corn meal and fried in butter. And at some point during dinner, one of the kids asked what happened up on the mountain, and why was my jacket all torn, and how did I get that big bruise on my face?
I looked across at table at Shining, and said, “Well, you’re not going to believe this, but Larry Shining was there and he’d tell you if you had asked him. You see, we were riding along, and all of a sudden there was this big grizzly bear, and the next thing you know we …
Copyright 2011, David Hipschman