Closer Than We Appear
The 1969 Ford Bronco’s rear-end dropped to the ground and began to skid violently on the dirt road. I glanced at my father; a lump of cartilage flexed like a worm beneath his silver beard as he pumped the brakes. I could only stare open-mouthed as I saw a tire rolling behind us in the side-view mirror—noting, ironically, the warning that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
The year was 1999 and I was sixteen, although far from sweet. I was riding shotgun in my father’s ancient Bronco as the noonday sun poured over the Rocky Mountains. The dirt trail that we drove on wound serpentine through the western Montana foothills. I was supposed to be looking for deer and elk, but I was doing everything in my power to keep from being lulled to sleep by the stillness of the forest and the warmth of the afternoon.
“I don’t think you’re going to see any deer on the inside of your eyelids,” my father said, glancing at me over the tops of his glasses.
“I’m looking,” I said, “I’m just tired.”
“The point is to see the deer that live in the forest, not the ones that live in your dreams,” he said, “We’ll park in another mile or two. Walking around these hills will get your blood pumping.”
Montana was the land of my youth. John Steinbeck once said, “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” I can’t help but echo Steinbeck’s sentiments when I am confronted by the immense canopy of Montana’s night sky or the rugged, snow-capped mountains growing hazy in the distance—even if only in my memories. Yes, Montana can still get my blood pumping.
After my family moved from Montana to Indiana in 1998, my father and I decided to take an extended hunting trip back to the state we both loved so well. We would spend two weeks bowhunting deer, elk, and antelope throughout the state, spending most of our time near the Canadian border. Archery was merely a hobby of mine, but it lived in my father’s blood like a drug. I had lost track of the number of times I had seen him split arrows in two while target shooting at 40 yards. I can still recall the bright red spray of arterial blood jettisoning from behind the shoulder of a deer as his arrow zipped through his target—the perfect shot. It was as if he had harnessed the spirit of Robin Hood.
My father and I had always struggled to get along. Our personalities were too similar, and we always found ways to bump heads. My dad knew how to be intimidating too—he was a Vietnam veteran and had fought forest fires in Glacier National Park in the early 1970s. He had worked side-by-side with former roughnecks, convicts, soldiers, and scholars, chopping firebreaks while the acrid smell of wood smoke burned their lungs. I was excited to hunt with him, but I was also terrified of him.
As we drove through the mountains, we weren’t aware that the bumps and lurches we felt were anything but normal for the rocky switchback trail. The square-built Bronco was made for this type of driving. The narrow wheelbase, off-road tires, and powerful V8 engine gave it exceptional handling—although it came at the expense of being noisy as hell.
We were coasting down a slight grade when the Bronco’s driver-side rear wheel seemed to drop at least a foot, slamming us to the ground with a jolting force. I saw my father grit his teeth, attempting to keep the truck from sliding sideways off the road and fighting with the steering wheel. I was stunned to see a tire rolling behind us as I caught a glimpse of the side-view mirror.
We lurched to a stop and the engine stalled. The noise of the big V8 ticking in the afternoon heat was the only sound as we turned to stare at each other.
“You awake now?” my father said.
I smiled hesitantly, too shaken to speak.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah. What just happened?” I said, letting out a breath that I had been holding since the Bronco so rudely interrupted my nap.
“The tire fell off, genius,” my father said. He swatted me with his hat and then set the short-brimmed Stetson over his bald head, which was fringed with a horseshoe of gray hair. We opened our doors and stepped down from the Bronco to survey the damage.
The Ford was tilted at a haphazard angle, and the axle rested directly on the road while the tire was several hundred yards behind us. I tried not to think about the carnage that could have occurred if the wheel had fallen off on the highway—even if the Bronco’s top speed was only a throaty, ear-numbing, gas-gobbling 70 miles per hour.
Luckily, my father was a journeyman mechanic in his own right. We got busy reenacting a scene from A Christmas Story, and I looked very much like a camouflage-clad Ralphie as my dad pieced together the brake pad, and I replaced the errant tire.
We were at least 30 miles from the nearest town, and the Bronco needed professional work to make it roadworthy if we were going to continue hunting through the rough terrain of Montana, or even complete our cross-country drive back to Indiana. We finished the repairs and drove—as gingerly as possible—to a professional mechanic.
Montana has always been a sparsely populated state, but when you’re near the Canadian border to do some hunting the chances of being near a large city are especially slim. We drove to a town that had jumped out of a Norman Rockwell painting—quaint, quiet, and just as dead. It was Sunday afternoon and everyone was at church, and nearly all the businesses had closed. We stopped at the only auto mechanic in town, praying that he was an atheist or a backslider. We never did inquire about his religious affiliation, but a wiry, grease-covered man answered our third knock despite the “CLOSED” sign on the door. He said he had just come into the shop to do some catch-up work, but he listened to our story and agreed to take a look at the Bronco.
My father and I decided to bide our time at a local tavern advertising German beer and handmade burgers. In the dim light of the bar, our waitress brought us our food—our burgers were bloody and full of flavor, the bacon still sizzling with grease. The Coca-Cola from the walk-in refrigerator was so cold that condensation froze to the side of the can like winter frost in my father’s beard.
The mechanic told us that when we had recently installed four new magnesium-alloy wheels on the Bronco, the lug nuts hadn’t been torqued properly—magnesium-alloy wheels need to be tightened a bit more than the standard steel variety. Because of this, our left-rear wheel had gradually loosened over the course of our trip across the Midwest and into the mountains. We were fortunate that the wheel had careened off when we were on an empty dirt road, driving a leisurely 35 miles per hour. If it happened on the highway, the results could have been disastrous.
Even after we got back on the road—with much-tightened lug nuts, of course—our luck increase little that trip. But, it was two weeks with my father in the wilderness of Montana. We bathed in mountain creeks that had never seen an automobile. We saw Bull Moose grazing in meadows that were just starting to decay with early autumn frost. We cowered in a roadside ditch to escape a tornado on the plains of eastern Montana. We laid our sleeping bags beneath the starry expanse of the Big Sky Country nights, lulled to sleep by the undulant iridescence of the Aurora Borealis.
I wish I could say that my father and I were inseparable from that point on. Instead, I was a rebellious teenager who bucked under the authority of a loving, although strict and distant, father. I would be an adult serving in the military before we would be on speaking terms again, and my father would be suffering as cancer metastasized inside his body and ate his liver.
I have children of my own now, and I better understand the struggle of, as the late Christopher Hitchens put it, “realiz[ing] that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.” Even though my father has been gone for over seven years, I still recall our Montana hunting trip as a pivotal event in my life. I never noticed that the wheels of my life were coming loose and that my father was constantly trying to provide the torque—the paternal force—that I needed to succeed. Still, despite his absence—and my own skepticism—I like to think that when I look up at an expanse as vast as Montana’s night sky that my father is there with me. His heart still beats within my breast.