I bought a new pack today. It's just a small running pack with a enough space for a day's worth of trail necessities. Turns out I may not be able to use it as soon as I expected, but as I look at it sitting next to my other packs, I can imagine all the possibilities--the miles and miles of trail I could cover uninhibited by unnecessary bulk. Then I think too of John Muir and the miles and miles of trail he covered with only a small sack full of stale bread, and I get down on myself a little for being such a pampered consumer. Perhaps modern outdoor gear is worth celebrating for the level of freedom and relative comfort it has given us average adventure goers. Or perhaps it has only made us softer. Either way, the aspect of liberation a thing provides seems important, to whatever degree that might be to an individual. For some it might be a vehicle to get them to the grocery store, a family members home, or a camping spot. For me it is to get beyond the vehicle, and a good pack always inspires that.
I feel like I've been going on about gratitude to the point where if any God is listening I am wearing them out. Regardless, things couldn't be going better now and just in time for the holiday to recognize it, Thanksgiving, which Jess, Maryanne, and I will be celebrating as a family with so much to be thankful for. Maryanne is doing great. She is ahead on weight and basically sleeping through the night--just waking up once or twice to down a bottle before nodding back off. And Jess is in high spirits, still finishing school but with plenty of time to dote. Finally, getting to this point has depended on a many things going just right for me: finding a job in fire, having a great initial season on a great crew, getting through the birth of our beautiful child, gaining acceptance in the UM grad school in the spring, and most recently, being offered and accepting a job next summer with the Logan Hotshots.
Hotshot jobs are very competitive with only a few openings on a relatively small number of crews each year. The position entails all the challenges one would expect to find in a seasonal forest service position only more demanding, with little to no time afforded for me to return home over the six month season. It will be a sacrifice for sure, but I look at it like a military deployment, no different than thousands of men and women with families have and continue to experience. Most importantly, it will allow Jess, who will be independently raising Maryanne, to stay home through the summer, and it'll financially provide for her to student teach during the spring without working. While this kind of life may not be for everyone, it works for us, and she is very supportive.
All this being said, I feel a renewed sense of purpose. I plan to appreciate all the time I can with my family until the summer and bust my butt in preparation for it. Indeed, that preparation will be more than necessary.
Every year during this time, on creeks and rivers throughout the west, a large orange-abdomened bug emerges from and takes wing above the waters for approximately two weeks. These are the salmon fly, and when considering their occurrence, it’s hard not to sense something miraculous. To the trout, they are a bundle of protein to feed upon at the exact time the winter runoff starts to wane and the waters begin to warm, which causes the trout’s metabolism to kick into high gear. The energy the salmon fly provides helps propel the trout through the warmer months ahead, and their bright orange abdomens help the trout locate them in waters still murky from mountain sediment. It’s a perfectly calibrated system, each part seemingly evolving for the other, but inseparable from the whole… The great watch at work.
Tomorrow my dog and I will part ways. Jess and I picked her up from one of my student's farms on the Blackfeet Reservation just over a year ago. It was in the dead of winter, windy, and bitter cold. Originally I planned to take home another dog he promised me, but as we searched from haybail to haybail where the dogs made their homes, that one was nowhere to be found. We walked back to the house, me thinking we might try another day. Then Jess pointed out one of the dogs from the pack that had been following us--the dog we would come to love and call Nika, meaning God's child.
My student looked a little surprised at the choice. "She's sweet," Jess insisted and said she kept nuzzling her leg. I bent down to examine her, a mix we'd learn--- half-Great Pyrenees, one quarter Border Collie, one quarter German Shepherd. The fur on her face was matted with pus that oozed from a porcupine wound. We'd later find her flea infested and bloated with worms, barely able to walk and not likely to survive the rest of the winter, certainly not after my student dumped her with the rest of the Rez dogs in town like he had planned. They simply had too many dogs on the farm, couldn't feed them all, and his grandparents said get rid of her. We decided then we had to think about it, but sure enough, we returned the next week.
By this time, Nika had lodged herself in a den underneath their house's foundation. It's the one she had found refuge in as a puppy the previous winter but had now clearly outgrown. It took my student's cousin, a giant ex University of Montana football player, to pull her out by her back legs. He then bear hugged her wildly squirmy body over to my covered truck bed and heaved her in. She was scared shitless, literally--she pooped all over my truck bed--but we got her home, and for several months and over many vet visits, we finally cured her of all her ills.
I couldn't have been happier for the effort. She has turned out to be a wonderful dog in every way. I spent all summer and spring hiking with her. She accompanied me on rigorous solo trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and perilously dove into and swam across swollen rivers. She provided entertainment bounding endlessly after gophers she'd never catch, and she remained vigilant through the night on guard for bears. She slept curled up next to me under scrub pine during a vicious thunderstorm, and when I was invited on a horsepacking trip by two local cowboys, she followed us 25 miles to the top of the continental divide where she plopped her happy butt down directly facing into 70 mile per hour winds like a kid on a roller coaster. This might be my favorite Nika moment.
As much as I cherish the dog, I had to come to the hard realization that taking her to the city would not be the best for her nor for me and Jess, as we are looking for a place together. Nika's one fault is she will dig under fences, and she is used to roaming outside at her leisure. Additionally, I plan on firefighting over the summer and fall, which would leave the extra burden of exercising and taking care of Nika on Jess who is continuing school and will have other obligations. All said and considered, I created a craigslist ad one night, two weeks ago, almost spontaneously as everything seemed to hit me at once. I just wanted to see who was out there.
As it turned out, I got a response the next day. It was from a young guy. He has property in rural Montana. The property backs up to national forest land. There are no fences, tons of space to roam, and moreover, he wrote that he could take Nika to work at his construction office where she could lounge all day during the summer in the AC. This must be dog heaven I thought, and I immediately called him back to talk further. Just like that, we arranged to meet, me only feeling a tinge of sadness at the time, knowing what an incredible opportunity this would be.
Two weeks later, and the time has almost come. Tomorrow morning I will brush and wash Nika. It will be my last time hugging her as she buries herself into my arms. No longer will I hear her grunting in the evenings when she flops lazily in the living room and dreams sweet gopher dreams. No longer will I feel her gentle nudges in the morning to go back outside. I sincerely love and have enjoyed my time with this dog, but as I think about, I'm not sure I will cry. I'm happy for the time we have spent together, and I'm even happier for the place she will end up. The world is full of good dogs. I only hope in the future, when I'm a bit more settled, I will be able to find another as good as her.
First, I want to say how proud I am of the student-athletes at our school as well as the families, who’ve all overcome such difficult conditions to compete and support each other during the basketball tournaments. It is the epitome of resilience and has been the highlight of our year. The message I’m posting is not in any way intended to distract from that--not that I think anything really could at this point-- but rather it is to detail the one positive thing the weather has afforded me, and that has been the introspective time to evaluate the recent life decisions I’ve made and mentally prepare for the steps I need to take.
That said, I might as well be up front in stating that I turned in a resignation letter and won’t be working at Heart Butte next year. This is a conclusion I reached after a difficult and prolonged internal struggle. At times this job has been very challenging-- especially with the interruptions due to the weather and building repairs --but it’s also been an incredibly rewarding to work with the students, community, and staff. I’ve met a lot of great people who’ve taught me as much or more than I feel I could ever teach, and for that, I am truly thankful.
Although I do eventually plan on returning to teaching—a conviction strengthened by my positive experiences—I have accepted a job starting June 4th on a wildland firefighting crew near Challis, Idaho. This is a temporary position that runs through September. Once I finish, I plan to substitute teach and use the rest of my G.I. Bill in the spring to pursue my masters at the University of Montana. I can make good money this way, and as I plan to continue firefighting a few years, it will allow me to pay off some bills and save money for my future.
My first priority going forward, then, is to end the year on as strong a note as possible. This includes rooting our basketball team through state, striving to continue to provide high quality lessons and a safe learning environment, putting together another literature magazine and printing all four issues into one volume, taking the students out onto some hikes this spring with our camping gear, and seeking out a replacement for me. I want to do everything in my power to leave the school and the English classroom in a better position than before I arrived. These young men and women deserve it.
My next major priority is to prepare myself for the rigors of firefighting. I’ll be located in very mountainous and remote terrain, potentially working in some dangerous situations with other people counting on me. This is not the kind of work that’s entirely unfamiliar to me, and I find much to enjoy in the challenge, otherwise I wouldn’t so willingly enlist to do it. I also take it very seriously and intend to report for the position in the best possible shape.
All this being the case, there’s a good chance I’ll be deactivating my Facebook before long, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s realized my tendency to continually disappear and reappear. While it has been useful for navigating the weather situations and staying connected with our school’s staff and basketball team, I frankly just get too distracted by it, and with so much on my plate right now, that’s not what I need.
If you’re still following along, the best way to contact me in the future is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best wishes and go Warriors!
Anytime I get too down about the whole human endeavor, which tends to happen now and then, I've found there is nothing that restores my faith like appreciating a beautiful work of music, literature, or art, getting a good workout in, and admiring the physical feats of athletes performing at the top of their game. We may not be a perfect creation by any means, and I still think there are many things worth fighting for, but I also truly believe we are blessed with plenty to admire and enjoy no matter where our collective society or individual lives may lead. I'm thankful for that.
In other news: there's a blizzard here today preventing me to get to Great Falls to watch the boys basketball game, so I'll be listening from home. Winning the divisional championships tonight will mean they remain undefeated and go into the state championship the #1 seed. I can also happily report that Jess and I have maintained our sanity through this long winter, but we could both stand for it to abate soon, as I'm sure it is for many on the reservation, who've been severely effected by the storms.
Having only had one day of school due to the weather the past two weeks, we're ready to return, hopefully to a state of normalcy, which this year has been so hard to achieve. Finally, I've had some exciting life developments I'm not yet ready to reveal outside my family but may share soon.
I've been on a Youtube workout video kick using the limited weights at my disposal which have turned out to be more than enough. We've been repeatedly snowed in and confined to our place. School was canceled today on account of the last winter storm having dropped an unprecedented amount. Headlines for today read: "Brutal Cold Today, Possible Blizzard Conditions Tomorrow, More Snow on Wednesday." So, there's a possibility school will get canceled more this week. I don't even like to think about all the days we have to make up. Already our days have been extended half an hour. The positive, though, is it has given me an opportunity to get convict strong. After all, I have to structure the day and stay sane somehow.
Anyway, the workout--a typical one over the last couple weeks. I just mute the volume, play my own music (METAL). and follow along.
First, I started out here. Although I only did half to get my blood moving
Did three rounds of the following...
Hit my stand up bag while watching this fellow.
And I ended here...
Not bad. Now I'm going to brave the cold and help feed some cows.
Well we had a thaw in these parts that lasted about a month, but it seems winter has returned in its usual form of sub-zero temperatures, lots of snow, and even more wind. The wind might be the worst of it, as its absolutely cutting and eliminates the chance of doing much outdoors. I'm talking gusts of 90 or more at times. It ripped the gutter off the apartment next to me, leaving half attached, and all night I can hear it blowing and scraping across the ground and somewhere a little hole in the roof or ceiling or somewhere opened up and created this godawful whistling sound, which sent me to the couch with earplugs in. But that's beside the point.
The point is about this time, the same time I felt last year, I start getting the winter blues. Last weekend I hiked over Swift Dam, which was nice, but on my way up the snow was knee deep, and though snowshoes are on my to-buy list, I'm not in the position to afford them. This weekend I was just going to settle for having a fire. I even spent the evening organizing my gear to make a nice camp, but the wind chill has to be -10 below, and I'm not sure I could make it with the snow if it keeps falling like it's forecast. Its a good thing I stocked up on groceries, because we literally get cut off.
This all raises the question of what to do.
I'm thinking, make pancakes and coffee, working out to blow off some steam...and maybe I'll listen to some audio books about early polar explorers to put my sissy butt in its place. ha!
Without thinking too hard about them, sometimes lessons have a nice way of coming together, as has especially been the case with my Junior and Senior classes this semester. We started off with the first of three approaches to reading I’ve found to be the most effective. That approach is reader’s theatre where each student is given a copy of a play, we sit in a circle, and the students pick parts to informally read as we periodically break into discussion along the way. The play of choice was A Raisin in the Sun. It’s about an African American family in Chicago during the civil rights era, and in considering the historical context, we drew parallels to the American Indian Movement around the same time. While reading the play, emphasis was placed on sources of empowerment such as identity, culture, solidarity and family, and we discussed key terms such as segregation, assimilation, discrimination, inequality, and prejudice. Then, once we finished reading and watching the 1961 production starring Sidney Poitier, the students were given an essay assignment asking them to choose a character and describe sources from which they drew their strength.
About the time the students began the essays, though, the elementary building flooded, and there was the large interruption of first combining classrooms in the high school wing, then transitioning into our temporary trailers with several days missed in-between. The time lag put an end to the unit, and I’ll be honest, there was a couple week stretch where the main goal was survival. Movies were shown. Games were played.
But survive we did, and near the end of the transition, the students had the opportunity to utilize the newly reopened library and engage with the second approach to reading I’ve found effective, that being, independent reading, which allows the students to develop and explore their individual interest. The only requirement, outside of participating in an opening class discussion on reading strategies, is reading a book they enjoy during the period and writing a review for their fellow classmates at the unit’s end. I will also add, it’s a nice way for the teacher to take a break when spaced between activities with other preps, and it also allows them to model my favorite thing to model…reading!
Once the student’s finished their short book reviews, I assigned a longer writing assignment—a career goals essay in which I first gave them an MBTI test, then I counseled them on careers they might consider based on their results, and finally, I asked them to imagine their future: “What kind of lifestyle do you want? What career would allow you to achieve this lifestyle? How will you achieve this?” Although, each question was a little more specific. I wanted specifics and graded them based on the specifics they provided.
This brings me to the unit just completed—considerations of the American Dream. Seeing as at that point they’d never read Of Mice and Men, that’s the material I choose to elaborate on the discussion. It was also the material I had, and it worked perfectly for the last approach to reading I’ve found effective… A read aloud, that is me reading aloud and modeling my thinking along the way. The students enjoy it too, and I let them color from adult coloring pages or draw what they can imagine, which I imagine provides a nice escape. Sometimes just creating a safe and relaxed atmosphere is victory. But they are attuned to the material too, which I gather from questioning, and I focused on obstacles the numerous characters face toward achieving their vision of the American dream, especially in the circumstances that may mirror the student’s own or others they know in their community. It is an important discussion to have, and it tied nicely into the societal barriers we initially discussed like prejudice, inequality, etc.
So that’s where we’re at. The students took a test over Of Mice and Men today, and before moving onto an essay focused on its themes, I had them watch a video of James Baldwin standing before a Cambridge audience in a debate against William F. Buckley. The topic considered: “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin himself draws direct parallels between African Americans and Native Americans and I’d hope, now, my students could draw on prior knowledge to do the same.
We still have a couple weeks left yet before the semester’s end. They’ll return to independent reading once they’ve completed their essays, then have another writing assignment, then we’ll start reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog—a book I’ve just ordered a classroom set for, and which according to Goodreads “takes readers to the heart of the Native American experience. As the story unfolds, Dan speaks eloquently on the difference between land and property, the power of silence, and the selling of sacred ceremonies.” I’m excited to take a breather over Christmas break and start to delve in.
I woke up this morning an hour before sunrise, crawled out of my truck’s camper shell, slung my rifle, and stepping between patches of exposed pine litter in order to avoid the crunchy snow, I followed a narrow trail that I scouted for the first time the previous afternoon. Weather and wind predictions caused me to second guess the area I’d normally have gone, so I’d made my way west to the Kootenai National Forest, which from a map looked pretty good, and as it turned out, it looked pretty good from the ground too. Tracks revealed the presence of deer.
I continued up the trail about half a mile and turned off, slipping through the brush to climb a bluff overlooking a small lake. As the last stars faded from the sky, I reached the top, identified my shooting lanes, and while waiting in perfect stillness, I tried to imagine to life a buck appearing where I’d level my sights. But, as the day’s light burned from the lake its last vapors, no such buck would ever materialize. I would return home deerless again, the last time this season.
“So it goes,” stated author, Kurt Vonnegut. So it goes….
Lack of cell service and knowledge of the Kootenia turned me back east, hunters in every location I’d scouted east turned me home, and a bank account stretched to its last dollar keeps me here. Of course, the weather is nothing as predicted—unseasonably warm without even a breeze. But I’m far from discontent. I feel restored in a way a person only can after communing with the natural environment, and, as was needed, I had time to organize the random assemblage of thoughts lodged in my brain as only solitude allows.
So what of these thoughts? Firstly, Thanksgiving being only a few days past, I thought of gratitude... To wax Walt Whitmanian,
I am thankful for the home, wherever Jess, Nika, Minnie, and I should make it, for the warmth it provides.
I am thankful for the beneficence of neighbors who’ve invited me to share in their meals, as well as their fellowship, as I’d otherwise be without so many miles from my family.
I am thankful for the unbreakable psychic bonds of family, which bridge the greatest distances and fill me continually with love and support.
I am thankful for the wild, remote, and often remorseless beauty of this country’s last untrammeled lands—its ability to test, inspire, and restore.
And I am thankful for my students who, born of this country, move me much the same.
That said, I am truly thankful for many things. But, with winter setting in and hunting season, which had carried me through the fall doldrums, now over-- and not to mention my classroom looking like some post-tornadic hell since the winds took it-- I recognize that difficulties lay ahead. Perhaps the run up to Christmas break and a visit to my family will assuage them. Perhaps I will still be able to make a few trips outdoors. I’m not sure. I just know that intellectual pursuits like reading and writing, or even wrapping my mind entirely around school, drain me. What I need is a healthy physical outlet and a corresponding goal to keep me level.
That’s where this comes in…
A kettlebell. Variants on this beautiful piece of iron date back to swingable slabs of stone in ancient Greece, and factoring in the school gym in the process of renovation due to flooding, a Spartan kettlebell regimen may just have to do. But hey, it seems exciting enough to me—a new source of mild obsession to center me existentially. As to how it actually pans out, I guess I’ll see.