Wednesday morning I stood on the boardwalk in Nevada City, Montana. In shadows cast by the old ghost town’s buildings, my feet slipped on a thin sheet of ice and I caught my breath. A cool breeze blew out of the west and captured moisture rising off the roofs of well-preserved stores and shops that once roared and hummed in the town’s old 1860s days when it was famous for placer gold diggings and vigilantes lynching claim jumpers.
This is not the first time I stood in Nevada City. I arrived in late July of 1962 visiting with two busloads of high school kids from Arizona. We were conventioning at Montana State University in nearby Bozeman and had ventured for a day to Nevada City and its neighbor, Virginia City. Back then the place was what in the Marine Corps we would call a geedunck—greasy hot dogs smothered with mustard and chopped onions, strawberry phosphates, chocolate malts, cheap wallets with wild buckaroos stamped into fake leather, tourist trap crap.
We were in Montana with the Junior Classical League, studiers of Latin. Some of you might chuckle at the thought of me studying Latin, and you would be right about your intuition. The Latin teacher at our high school, Mrs. Johnson, didn’t care for me as a student. I continuously chewed gum in direct disobedience to her demands that we not chew gum. But that was only one of many torments I inflicted on her, and here she was stuck with me for four weeks of her summer as we traveled from Phoenix to Bryce Canyon to Salt Lake to Yellowstone to Bozeman to Missoula to Seattle for the World’s Fair, to Crater Lake, to Reno, to Las Vegas and back to Phoenix.
While in Bozeman we competed in translation contests, and mythology tests, argued about the history of Rome. I don’t recall doing well or not well in those things. I do recall chasing a weasel, treeing some red squirrels, eating hamburgers in the college rec area where we shot Snooker instead of attending lectures on Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.
I was a mediocre student that year in all my studies. I was underweight, fighting pimples, my voice caroming high low high without warning. I hated my parents, my sister, and most of my friends. I was too small to be an athlete, and girls giggled at me (or so I imagined) when I tried to talk to them.
In Latin class we conjugated a lot of verbs, such as eō, which means “go.”
eō I go
īs You go
it He, she, it goes
ī́mus We go
ī́tis You go (the plural you)
eunt They go
I can see in those Latin words some roots of our own lingo: Itinerary, itinerant…itinerant, journeyor, that’s what I have become, or maybe that’s what I always was. On our just-completed journey to Washington, DC, and back, sensory input bored through my eyes and ears and nose and got inside my brain and scrambled around and around like crazy cats chasing their long calico tails. I don’t know how long it will take for the profundity of it all to seep into my ken. I suppose that was one of the many reasons I wished to embark across the continent (besides making movies) . . . the discovery of a lot of other mysteries and magnificences about our country, our people, about myself. And I am surprised by the affection I suddenly feel for my country, its landscapes, foibles, folks, critters.
Looking back, I want to list everything I saw and all the moments and sights that rattled my senses, but doing so would make this blog way too long. But I will say what surprised me the most. Brown County, Indiana, surprised me. Right now (and this might change) I think Brown County is the most beautiful place I saw on the entire trip. The hardwood groves and the old country roads. The ancient stonehead road marker carved in 1851 by a resident meeting his annual requirement to work six days on the local roads. The old log cabins, some as old as Honest Abe Lincoln, I suppose. The smell of wood smoke, the sound of roosters crowing, crows cawing, woodpeckers battering the bark of sugar maples, the taste of fried chicken and Maxine Bailey’s homemade noodles . . . all these things, mixed with the vernacular the Indianans speak, something we may have heard come directly out of Honest Abe’s mouth.
South Dakota surprised me, too, one of those states I tend to forget about when I think of this country. Sparsely populated, it moves from a lush, fertile east, to a flat, harsh center, to a hilly conifered west along with its fabled badlands. We saw it all. Sunsets so red you thought the gods were bleeding onto a table of black clouds. The Mount Rushmore faces of Honest Abe, and G Washington and T Jefferson and T Roosevelt, so life-like, enormous, peering out over the hills, visible for miles, as if looking into our dark and cloudy future. And I don’t want to forget—we saw bison, bison, bison, a vestige of our greater age.
Amo I love
Amas You love
Amat He, she, it loves
Amamus We love
Amatis You love (the plural you)
Amant They love
This is the Latin conjugation I remember. Back in 1962 and all that Latin Club trip jazz, there was a girl from Phoenix, a girl who looked like a woman, a pretty woman, smart, a straight-A student, who tried to kiss me out behind one of the shops in Nevada City. She may have succeeded, but what I remember is that she tried and when she did, lizards scrabbled up the insides of my legs, their little claws itching my thigh bones, my shins.
Moving towards home three days ago, we drove through Yellowstone National Park. I experienced that scrabbly feeling again when I spotted the white shaggy bodies of mountain goats above the Lamar River Valley and even more so when a grizzly bolted across the highway in front of us. His whole frame shook like muscles in motion. I stopped and peered into the thickets of lodgepole pine that ganged up like sentries in the evening light. Like the girl back in 1962, that bear was long gone.
The day before that, at Little Bighorn Battlefield, Betty and I wandered around the national cemetery and photographed headstones from every American war since the 1870s. A man asked me where Custer was buried. I told him, “At the US Military Academy at West Point, NY.“ He glared at me like I was lying and I suddenly figured he wanted to know where Custer was killed. I started to point up towards “Last Stand Hill,” but he interrupted me. “What’s that bird?” he asked. A sage grouse stalked between white gravestones. Unafraid of all the visitors, it headed south to north as the late dusky sun threw long headstone shadows. Two men struggled along as if they were looking for the name of some long-dead relative. The breeze hummed a tuneful anthem through the pine trees. Amo, amo. Something inside my spirit wanted out of my self-imprisonment, to sing, to dance. I could have stood there the rest of my life and exalted in…in what? What was to come the next day, the day after that? What is to come forever?
Right then, like all of us, I didn’t know what was to come, that I was going to stop in Nevada City, Montana, and remember Caesar, Amo, that girl who wanted to kiss me.