October, 2013

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Just out of frame, I stand between piles of fresh scat in a grizzly bed.

Writing here now feels impolite, like interrupting someone else’s story.

When I left Montana in November of 2013, I had ambitions to write some grand and saccharine soliloquy to my time there. The metaphor would be as heavy as the weight I put upon the meaning of the time. I would further romance the mystique of living off-the-grid in the forests of the Northern Rockies and cement into my own life’s narrative the importance of the experience.

But the words never came.

Surely I was somehow still processing the magnitude of the experience, and that in a moment of clarity the meaning of it all would coalesce into an inspiring tale of a self found.

But the last entry in this already too-sweet blog was written on the edge of a proverbial cliff over two years ago. While it would be fashionable to wax poetic about my fading recognition of the man dangling his feet over that edge, the truth is that even at 31, he was no different than the same 14 year old boy that  occupies this 33 year old body now. And he has no more, or less clarity about meaning than I possess today.

I have so many other things I want to write about than this, but Montana is in the way. I talk about it a lot, and think about it more. But I’ve no conclusions to share, or neat sentiment to tie a bow around.

All I have are memories, and photos. Clues.

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Frost melts and spatters on the mess hall porch. Meat House and kayak in the background.

I lived at the confluence of Big Creek and the North Fork river on the west side of Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana from May 27th, 2013 to November 3rd of that year. I kept journal entries when I felt like it. Sometimes I wrote daily, sometimes weekly, sometimes in the form of thematic essays shared with my Big Creek family on The Porch. But I made only one entry for the month of October. It’s embarrassing, vulnerable, honest (maybe), and also not very well written. But its a clue to an answer, the question to which I probably need to stop asking:

October

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My Favorite Road.

“I crack the lid on a flask of whiskey as soon as my tires leave pavement and send plumes of North Fork dust streaming behind me. Holding the flask between thumb and forefinger, I use the meat of my palm to up-shift and accelerate past 50 toward smoother washboards. With my head cocked to the side to keep an eye on the road, I take a nip then turn the radio up with the pinky on my flask-hand. I’ve fallen in love with radio-country music; it’s both my guilty pleasure and my license to spend more time thinking about words spoken to women I ought to have kissed, and words I ought to have spoken to women I’ll never kiss again. I raise my flask to the driver of a 1960’s grain truck with a bed full of logs as we pass each other in a chalky cloud. Shift. I’ve fallen in love with whiskey too.

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Wrangler pockets are purposefully designed.

The North Fork, a region named for the eponymous river that flows through the valley it creates, is a vestige of the Montana stereotype, and it is my home.

Over thirty years before the Yellowstone reintroduction in 1996, wolves were discovered in the North Fork valley by researchers; some biologists doubt they ever left. Called “The Magic Pack”, these ghost-wolves managed to escape direct observation by highly trained biologists for over 10 years and local ranchers for nearly 100 until they were confirmed visually in 1983. Paddling two miles up stream of my house will put you in the Camas Creek drainage of the valley, which lends its name to the descendants of that ethereal pack and marks the territorial boundary between what are now called the North and South Camas Packs. The drainage also boasts the highest concentration of grizzlies in the North Fork, which as a whole boasts the highest concentration of grizzlies anywhere in the lower 48 states. I’ve spent the last six months scanning every open meadow and bruin shaped stump on fire scarred hillsides in every direction for 20 miles, I’ve walked into a grizzly bed, followed ancient grizzly footsteps to their generations-old rub trees and stepped in piles of shit so fresh it stained my boots green. I’ve seen mule deer, elk, moose, pine marten, wolf and even black bear on these hunts, but no grizzlies.

Put simply, if you don’t want to be found, the North Fork will hide you. I have hidden here too.

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Hiding with the wolves among the larch.

I read a quote this spring that I’ve been digesting ever since: “May your real life one day be as awesome as it appears on Facebook.”

A clear jab at those who use the medium for image shaping. The phrase struck me as clever but cynical. We all project aspirations.

Over the last two years I’ve received many words of thanks for my photos and narratives that, to some, have offered an enjoyable window into what is possible if one takes the right risks. Or in my case, follows their compulsions. I can only assume there are as many words un-shared about my apparent self absorption. Both characterizations are probably correct.

But, I’ve spent almost as much time second guessing my decisions as I have spent sharing their outcomes. And, I’ve stayed home to watch a movie on my laptop, charged by the sun, as often as I’ve hopped in the back of a dusty pickup bound for the Northern Lights Saloon. I’ve spent a lot of time sharing once-in-a lifetime experiences with truly inspirational people that I’ve had the privilege of working with; but I’ve also spent a lot of time hiding.

I have hidden behind the swing of a maul and the stacks of split fir, or larch, that follow. I have hidden behind the thick insulated-walls of my home in the 1920’s era Meat House. The original function of which is poetic when contemplating the meaning of one’s own humanity.

I have hidden alone in canyons, wading and swimming up-stream to nearly inaccessible rapids. I have hidden beneath the dry-deck of my kayak as I slip silently and alone into swift waters, with only the voices of snow melt calling my name. I have hidden in the duff beneath cedars older than everything but the rocks they grow from. And I have hidden behind pretty pictures on the internet; with positivity and an aspirational smile, just like everyone else.

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Solo Scout of Canyon Creek, Montana

I’ve written a little about sacrifice since I began this journey in 2011. I’ve written about sacrificing time with those close to me in order to achieve my goals, and I’ve written, perhaps subtly, about the duty that I’ve felt to achieve, and achieve, and achieve, so as to honor best the sacrifices that others have made for my benefit. I’ve also shared so much of my appreciation and gratitude for the things I’ve been able to experience, and the people I’ve been able to meet throughout my adventures and my work.

But my prose have failed to mention how I made it as far as Marblehead, IL before breaking down into tears on the side of the road the day I left Quincy. Or how Food Stamps and the Missoula Food Bank saved me from calling home for money during my two years living there. I’ve been silent about the crater left in my chest from the impact of too many tearful goodbyes shared with someone I grew to love more through our attempts to bridge the distance. Or how I struggled with the ambiguity of our distance, understanding, and new attractions in a mountain town. Particularly absent from the public record is a single line about her last goodbye.

When it was over, she shared the following entry in her journal with me: “I just want him to screw up; he’s so perfect, I just want him to be human.” Words that have since proved resilient to every swing of the maul; they refuse to splinter.

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Green spruce makes you earn it.

Consider this entry a glimpse of fragility a satisfaction of that request.

Because for every river run, mountain climbed, photo captured, or career goal achieved, there were just as many affections withheld, words left unspoken and flirtations offered indiscreetly.

So she was wrong of course. No one is perfect; I’ve screwed up plenty. And in the story I tell myself, I’ve let those failures and frailties define me more than they should. But it is a story that I do not often tell others. I should.

Though I aspire to not let those frailties be the only things that define me. Gratitude also defines me. Love defines me. Sharing defines me. Laughter defines me. And how I choose to cope, deflect, ignore, wallow, sublimate or overcome defines me.

Hidden Lake

“Hidden Lake” | Accessible Via Boardwalk at the Logan Pass Visitor Center

So I’ll keep sharing photos I like of places that inspire me and leave me in awe; I’ll keep trying, and failing, to be the best me I can be for those I love; and I’ll keep my words positive more often than not. Not because unbridled positivity alone defines me, but because some days I want it to, and other days I know it never can. Success lies in trying.

My life is already as awesome as it appears on Facebook. But it’s also just as complex offline as everyone else’s. A life is no less captions beneath photos than it is whispers beneath kissses, but the latter is much more interesting. And vulnerability begets them both.”

– Written October 2013 in a Small Cabin in the Mountains of Montana, where cold and colder waters meet.


 

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Montana Miles

Combing through the three draft posts that have accumulated in my WordPress dashboard over the last year is a lot like viewing the stomach contents of a trout. Dulled is the fly fisherman’s coveted iridescence on gossamer wings. Nothing real looks good half digested.

I can still decipher the essence of my intent, but the metaphors seem tenuous at best. I really should start including tasting notes with my blogs: best consumed with a scotch ale and a sleep deficit.

In my last annual report a year ago I made some predictions about the year to come. Whether you call them tongue -in-cheek or lip-and-chop depends upon how much emphasis you thought I put on the emergence of facial hair trends.

Regardless of how clever I thought I was, there were a lot of things that one-year-ago me didn’t anticipate. That guy certainly didn’t predict a year-long drought in putting digital ink to virtual paper. And I’ll be damned if he had even a splinter in the brain to the notion that his next year in Montana would be his last…and end just as this love affair started, on a river in country that is less a place than an archetype of the indefinable.

Sunset in the Big Belts – Near Avalanche Butte, Montana

John Steinbeck once wrote,  “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 …”

Reticence to trample the words of Steinbeck provides a credible excuse for me to abbreviate my own rumination on the relationship I’ve cultivated with this landscape. I possess not the literary acumen to avoid the awkwardness of the trite prose I’m compelled to pen; lest they dwell on tears descending to the pacific as their Atlantic bound source sojourns on.

On a side note, I’m probably going to punch myself  squarely in the pretentiousness when I re-read this in the morning.

The point is, my connection to this place extends far beyond an alignment of my aesthetics with the landscape. The eponymous mountains of this state aren’t the only snow-capped beauties I’ve seen in my life. Yet none of the other thirteen ranges I’ve explored in half-again as many states offer the sense of place I’ve experienced little further than my front door in Missoula. A short walk through my neighborhood affords me a view from the top of Mount Jumbo onto a city that is as comfortable with its  quirky, independent and inclusive identity as I am.

Rattlesnake Recreation Area - Missoula, Montana

Upper Rattlesnake – My “Backyard”

To venture into Montana’s backcountry only serves to solidify that which I feel on the streets in Missoula. I’ve explored 7 or 8 of the ranges here, but there are over 100 big enough to carry names…all of them are big enough to kick my ass. That is an indelible part of the ethos here; it takes work. Sometimes it even takes work coming down.

Pillows Run at Lolo Pass - {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

Backcountry Pillows Run at Lolo Pass – {Photo By Sperry Desrosier}

“Earning it” isn’t unique to Montana however; I’ve written about it before. Yet in most places I’ve lived, the line of authenticity separating daily life from a crafted adventure is an obvious one. Here, perhaps only woven into the context of my expectations, is a sense that the quiver of skills one carries is necessary to navigating this landscape; not a luxury. This isn’t strictly fact of course, Missoula is a city after all. But perceptions are important, and the fact that skiing to work or towing a baby stroller behind your bicycle during hunting season isn’t considered by most to be odd demonstrates a sense of place that embraces “adventure” as a part of life.

The Hunting Rig - Upper Blackfoot Valley

Hunting Season – Upper Blackfoot Valley, Montana

As Thomas McGuane put it, “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”

I’ll miss that.

Graduation is scheduled for May 18th and is just as much the marker of a task completed as it is a starter’s pistol. My days in Montana are numbered, approximately 235 in fact. In December, I’ll be driving back to the Midwest for Christmas before moving to Durham, New Hampshire a month later. I’ll shed my Grizzly skin and enroll as a Wildcat for a masters program at the university there. From Missoula, traveling four hours in any direction will get me to at least any given three of one-hundred named mountain ranges and probably at least one national park. From Durham, the same spin of the needle could put me in the White Mountains, New York City, or in the open ocean of the Atlantic. A different kind of adventure awaits me, to be sure.

North Fork of the Flathead River | By Clinton Begley

North Fork of the Flathead – During my First Visit in 2009

But the landscape that captured my imagination in 2009 during my first night spent camping in Montana will be my home until then. It was along the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, just outside of the electricity-free outpost of Polebridge, Montana that I heard a lone wolf howl for the first time, and where I first fell in love with this state.

Polebridge, Montana – 2009

Beginning in the week following graduation, I will have a Polebridge address. My mail will be delivered by a woman who owns a wolf she raised from an abandoned pup. I will not have electricity, nor cell service, nor internet. The five months I’ll spend there may be my last in Montana as I cannot say what adventures may be ahead of me. But I am confident that after a summer spent in its heart, the romance I already hold for this state will only be magnified by time and distance from it.

My good buddy Matt likes to measure the long uphill sections of especially rough, unkempt, talus strewn and log hampered trails here in “Montana miles,” a term of endearment to be certain. Because although the trails are tough, they are also ruggedly beautiful and the view from the top is always worth it.

I’m a full eight months from my date of departure and already I am measuring the long stretches of I-90 east in Montana Miles. Not because they are physically demanding, but because it will take some serious work on another level to convince myself that the view in end, another step on the career path near the Atlantic, will be worth it too.


Kentucky Knife Fight Isn’t Lonely

I’m sometimes embarrassed when I can’t remember the first time or place I met someone, especially if that someone has since become one of my best friends. That is not the case with Jason Holler. I cannot, in fact, remember the first time we met, but that milestone is less important than the aggregate drinks, concerts, aspirations and awkward moments in the homes of strangers we’ve shared since. I could gush for hours about Jason and many other close friends that feel more like siblings, but out of respect for the lonely I won’t gloat.

Instead, I’ll truncate this whole sentiment into a few paragraphs of admiration, respect and appreciation for what Jason and the rest of the guys in his band Kentucky Knife Fight have been able to accomplish over the years. The accomplishments of each band member go far beyond those milestones achieved in Kentucky Knife Fight, but from humble beginnings in Edwardsville, Illinois, “Knife Fight” has been able to build themselves into, in my opinion, an impressive icon of midwest music. Their songwriting has always held a sort of earnest comfort for me; in an industry of image and pretense KKF has embraced the landscape of which they are a product with an honesty that is unsurprising to anyone who is fortunate enough to know them, but that is no less laudable.

Jason Holler | Photo By Clinton Begley

Jason Holler of Kentucky Knife Fight | Back-yard Concert 2008

As a fan of their music, I am happy for the band’s success and have enjoyed following their progress and evolution. But as a fan of the outstanding human beings Jason Holler, Jason Koenig, Nate Jones, “Handsome” James Baker, Curtis Brewer and former guitar player David Wiatrolik, I am proud that their success has been so clearly earned through an indelible work ethic, gallons of talent and humble respect for the fans that have supported them on their impressive journey.

Even if I can’t remember the first time I met any of these guys, I will always remember countless moments shared with each of them and other illuminating personalities at their shows and in their presence.

Good on ya guys!

Enjoy Kentucky Knife Fight’s new video “Love the Lonely”

http://www.kentuckyknifefight.net


Annual Report

As the literary year draws to a close, I am reminded of just how much has changed since my first blog post one year ago today.

I’m glad to say that I’ve not had the time to write nearly as much as I would have liked.
It’s a strange thing to say considering how much I enjoy writing, but I tend to acknowledge the relationship between words written and miles of trail or river experienced as inversely proportional.

While this isn’t strictly true, it should serve as an indication of just how many miles I’ve traveled in the last year. But I’d prefer to qualify those miles traveled with approximate data on three vectors that may better illustrate what was witnessed and experienced in those miles. Since a year ago I was probably doing something similar with investment data, I thought it fitting to focus upon different measures of success to summarize the last four quarters of experiential growth.

Quantitative Performance Summary

This first graph will illustrate the approximate number of  nights annually spent outside throughout a duration of  past seven years and three months. I used a combination of recollection, planning documents (maps) I’d retained, and Facebook photos/videos to reconstruct my memories of various trips throughout the years. This is as scientific as it gets kids. You’ll see that literary year  (LY) 2011-2012 was the most “outside” year on record, with approximately 36 nights spent outside. So far in 2012, we’re off to a great start with 17 nights already accounted for in January and February alone. I project LY 2012-2013 to be a bullish year for “Agorasomnulence” and set new records for mosquito slappage.

Graph two shows approximate figures of photos taken annually over a duration of the last seven years and three months. Figures were determined based upon photographic archives and did not include cell phone photos or photos taken with other people’s cameras. LY 2012-2013 is on target to be the most picture takingest year on record with already 25% of 2011-2012 calendar year captures in the bag. A reliable sampling method has yet to be developed in order to establish correlation between quantity of total image captures and those that are not complete crap and/or awkward gopro images of my own befuddled face.

Using facebook photos and recorded interviews with friends, family and strangers in supermarkets, I have been able to reconstruct approximate head and facial hair values for the past six years and three months. Again, LY 2011-2012 proved to be a record breaking year for both head and facial hair length. In the final days of LY 2011-2012 we saw an emergence of a new “mustache”  category in conjunction with a slight decline in overall facial hair length. Analysts are currently developing new metrics for reporting mustache v.s cheek hair length. Forecasters are unsure if the mustache emergence will be a trend throughout LY 2012-2013 or if it’s growth will be undermined by environmental factors such as  heat and ridicule.

*High Five counts were not available at the time of this writing. Initial projections indicate a statistical increase, but causation cannot be determined due to an unusually high occurrence of people with more than two hands represented in the data set.

Qualitative Summary

The cliche simile of comparing life to a roller-coaster belies the complexity of existence. Days, and by extension lives are seldom either exclusively good or bad… up or down. Everyone knows this, yet we perpetuate the colloquialism.
One of my favorite ideas to share as a counter point is that we’re all just extracting particles of existence from waves of probability. The idea, that I’m fairly certain I stole directly from Rob Bryanton, is a freeing one.
The selections we make everyday when choosing our own pocketfull of existence particles are by definition products of compromise. We trade the ideal for a reality of consequence each time we reach into the flotsam of probability and  make a choice. And while our ideal future is rarely bobbing on the surface like a cork, the process of reaching deeper into the froth is one that forces us to get our feet wet. Because while at some time or another we’ve all been lucky enough for our ideal to wash up at our feet like so many sand dollars, most of what is worth having requires wading eye deep in order to see it, much less reach it.

The metaphor of existence and probability as ocean waves sort of got away from me; the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve traded a lot for the amazing year I’ve had. Where I’ve gained friends and fellow travelers in new experiences I’ve missed time with loved ones and being there for many major events in my friend’s lives. For every mile of beautiful river I’ve floated, or mountain landscape I’ve photographed, I’ve missed floating from bar to bar with some of my best pals and cheesing with them shoulder-to-shoulder. And for every transformational experience with wildlife that I’ve been privileged enough to see, I’ve missed the chance to share it with two of my best friends, my parents.

Yet sometimes no matter how deep we dive, the reality for which we’re searching is not a probability that exists within this universe. Becoming comfortable with this idea is what makes us comfortable with ourselves and our choices; but deciding to embrace the discomfort makes us value the things that are not quantum…it makes us value the things that we cannot incorporate into all possible places in all possible times of our lives… that which is finite, yet always immeasurable…that which we share with those who’s feet get wet alongside our own…or our mustaches…only time will tell.


Experimentation

This Photo is far, far, far from perfect.
Whatcom Pass - Milkey Way by Clinton Begley
This is a horizon-to-horizon stitch of seven photos taken in the summer of 2010 from Whatcom pass high in the North Cascades. The glow on the eastern horizon (bottom) is of the moon… soon to rise over the ridge.
It was late, and too cold for the flies that had pestered me throughout the previous day. For nearly two hours I experimented with aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
As a self taught photographer, like most in the world I’d imagine, I had to figure things out for myself. To my eyes, my inexperience with shooting astronomical features is glaringly obvbious in this photo.
With a few exceptions, almost every photo in this stitch has a different setting; this is not ideal. My eyes immediately fall to the obvious differences in ISO created grain and the slightly longer motion blur of some stars next to the sharpness of others.
Yet I’m pleased with this photo. I’m pleased that I took the time, alone under a brilliant sky, to hone a new craft while the rest of my crew slept off the vertical feet of the day. I’m pleased that I didn’t try to mess with the white balance and complicate things further.
And, unlike any other time in my life, I am pleased that I am not an astronomy expert…lest I become even more unsettled by my undoubtedly butchered shot alignment.


El Lobo Norteño

Finding a spot to pitch my tent was difficult; foot-deep holes lined with the shredded root-ends pockmarked the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River just outside Glacier National Park’s west entrance near Polebridge.

Grizzlies had undoubtedly found this spot as beautiful as I had, and bountiful to boot.

The light was fading fast, but it wouldn’t be the first time we had set up a tent in the dark. While Matt and I continued with the assembly after a brief pause to snap this photo, I heard a strange music swelling above the rustling of coated nylon and clanging of tent stakes.

We stopped. So did the music.

After a few perplexing seconds of silence, save for the din of the river’s flow, the sound swelled again from the meadow beyond a stand of burnt trunks and spry new growth.

This time the haunting sound of a single wolf’s howl echoing down the valley was unmistakable. To call it a song would be to diminish it’s wildness. But to describe it simply as power measured in hertz would be to deny the wolf’s raw musicality.

We never heard it again on our trip.

Yet, whenever I look at this underexposed photo of an artificial management border through an otherwise continuous landscape, I remember how the sound transcended that division both physically and symbolically. Now, I also realize that it transcends space and time each time I look at this photo as the sounds continue to vibrate the hairs on my neck to attention and moments later, the corners of my mouth to a grin.


Scotoma

Southwest Texas Asphalt | Photo by Clinton BegleyAt night, all asphalt looks the same between the lines.
The differences between our paths lie in the periphery, blurred by speed, and unilluminated.


Kshanti

I’ve been sitting on this photo for nearly four years.

More accurately, I’ve only recently posessed the skill and perspective necessary to assemble the photos comprising this panoramic into something remotely reflective of my feeling for this place.

Cathedral Peak by Clinton Begley

I wish I could say that this was an exercise in patience and foresight; that I’d somehow had the wherewithal to archive these photos until a serendipitous moment struck me with the inspiration to execute the perfect crop and the ideal channel mix of red, green and blue to make the abrasive granite nearly palpable to the eye.

In truth, it took a failure four years ago to make this assemblage possible. I had all the components and resources at my fingertips, but was lacking proper perspective on the experience to compile the pieces into something meaningful.

This week, as I’ve reflected on the impact that this first solo trek and other transformational  experiences have had on my trajectory through life, I felt compelled to revisit these photos. Like myriad analogous situations through life, the value of time and reflection is difficult to measure, but easy to feel. And this one feels good.


This Road Don’t Go to Aintree

There are a lot of things I remember about the various trips I took down the Chattooga last summer.
I remember quotes and debacles, hilarity and shenanigans plus a fair amount of respect for my compadres.
But when I think back most often to the Chattooga, it is the healthy respect for the river itself that I feel most pointedly.

Like mountains and people, rivers have personalities of their own. I liken the demeanor of the Nantahala to a good-natured hilbilly…pickin ‘n grinnin. The Ocoee reminds me of a bull-rider; it’s as fun as it can be dangerous, but feels safer in the company of a dozen clowns.

The Chattooga, by comparison, has more of an animal quality; it never lets you forget that for all man’s attempts to tame it throughout history, this river is wild. That trait is rare among southeast rivers, and at times, the Chattooga seems to want to prove this point. The point is always well taken.

I’ve never taken a really-bad spill on the Chattooga. A few missed braces in canoes on section III, and a dump-trucked raft on Sock ’em Dog (see video here) round out my carnage stories. But my respect for the river’s wildness has not been diluted. Perhaps it is my memory of  stories recalled by river veterans about each near-miss, injury or fatality conveniently told after each run, but I prefer to think my respect wells from a place more primal.

Even now, as I look at the photos I took during my first trip down the Chattooga river, I can feel my breaths become shallow and my neck stiffen. This river makes me nervous.

But I love it. I love the Chattooga the way I love wolves and moose and grizzlies in the west; I love it for its wildness and for the respect it commands, demands and receives. And I’d love to run it again soon.


I Hope It’s Like Gravity

I could taste the salt as I bit through the line to free my reel from the rats-nest of knots surrounding it. It has been five months since I tossed the bit of fishing gear into my car in late June after a trip to the North Carolina coast. My whole time spent in the south lasted just five months too; looking back it feels like a whole life was lived in such a short time and that another one has passed by since leaving.

Yet, I’m just now cleaning out my car again.

Mt. Starr King - Yosemite NP (May, 2011) | Clinton Begley

Mt. Starr King - Yosemite NP (May, 2011)

As I placed the reel on the shelf of my Montana garage and tossed the marine flavored fish-floss in the garbage, I realized how wonderfully different the months of my life have been this year. After all, there I was tasting saltwater from the Atlantic while standing in the middle of the rocky mountains. The day after my parents left Missoula in an empty pickup-truck on a 1500 mile journey back to the Midwest, I joined some friends in the Bitterroot mountains (here, affectionately referred to as “The Root”… it rhymes with “foot”) and humped some cans of Hamm’s a couple-thousand feet up a mountain-side to spend a few days yanking cuthroat’s out of an alpine lake and shooting a pistol at the aluminum corpses of beers passed on. After returning to civilization three days later, on the one-week anniversary of my arrival, I went to an event at the local art museum. Walking in a stranger I left with a position on the event planning committee and a free lunch.

Clinton Begley Upper Rattlesnake

The Upper Rattlesnake Recreation Area - Outskirts of Missoula, MT

As my early weeks here continued to pass by I scored a position with a local environmental education non-profit, shared a remote lake in the Mission Mountains with two good friends, hung out with Austin Lucas for a few moments at his basement show and hiked to the top of Lolo peak for lunch, a nap and a superb view of my new home. Matt and I ran the Blackfoot river (made famous by “shooting the chutes” in a River Runs Through It) three times in two weeks, and I also spent plenty of days learning to hold my own surfing a world class freestyle kayaking wave on the Clark Fork river. Mind you all of this took place over the span of barely four weeks between the start of my classes at the University of Montana and arriving to the northcountry after a knock-down-drag out summer in the south full of non-stop hiking, rafting and kayaking.

Tamarack Lake Clinton Begley

Skeletons of Tamarack Lake - Bitterroot Mountains, MT

Yet more-so than the places I’ve been or the ridiculously awesome jobs I’ve landed, the uniqueness of each passing month is symptomatic of a change in the tenor of my understanding of people.

Because dammit, people really are pretty awesome most of the time.

I’m increasingly finding it unfathomable that some find it so hard to meet quality, thoughtful and insightful individuals. In my experience, the world really seems to be lousy with them; so long as you’re open to finding them just about anywhere. Despite my excitement to get to Montana after nearly a decade of the idea floating around in my mind, it was really a bit harder to leave Georgia than I’d anticipated. Sure I’d expected to feel reluctance about saying goodbye to my great friend Carson with whom I’d lived and worked throughout the summer; but then just as now, I found myself missing some really great people I’d come to know, respect and appreciate over my short time there. Inexplicably, I even find myself missing some altogether unsettling and just plain weird folks as well (If you’ve got an “RW” on your helmet, I’m talking to you.)

And even in my short time as a Missoulian, I’ve been bowled over almost weekly by the quality of people I’ve come to know here. Of course, go figure that I’d meet a great group of people all of whom are shipping off to the Peace Corps in six months; however I can already feel that I’ll be keeping in touch with these folks for years to come.

Reflections in Tamarack Lake - Bitterrots, MT | Clinton Begley

Reflections in Tamarack Lake - Bitterrots, MT

But you know, I’ve never really had a shortage of awesome people in my life. I’ve tried never to take this for granted, but sometimes it’s still pretty unbelievable even to me.

This summer, while Carson was out of town,p robably in the Carribean, or Florida Keys or something, I decided to try and replace the rear brake rotors and pads on my Passat. Without going into too much detail I very quickly produced a puddle of brake fluid and a jammed wheel cylinder piston. With unreliable internet access and my phone’s connectivity waning, I decided that since I was unable to research how to remedy the situation on my own, I’d just borrow Carson’s jeep and head to Autozone for a new wheel cylinder; or maybe just a crowbar with which to beat myself senseless. Upon arriving to the neighborhood Autozone with glistening wheel cylinder in hand I immediately set to work trying to locate a replacement one with the help of the marginally helpful guy behind the counter. Just a few feet away at another terminal was an older black gentleman rattling off a list of makes, models and part numbers to another attendant who frantically keyed them into the computer.
After a few moments, my guy behind the desk delivered the sobering news that either I could order a new one through this store and have it in 3-5 business days for just $130, or I could drive to the other side of Atlanta to pick one up myself at the same price. My frustration must have been palpable; only a beat of silence passed before the gentleman next to me hollered over, “What are you need’n brotha?” He asks in a perfectly pleasant and soft southern drawl.

After explaining the situation and showing him the problem in my hands, the man gestures to my attendant behind the counter and points to the image of a tool kit illustrated on a table-top mat next to the computer. “Let Anthony take a look at this,” says the man as he uses a rag from his pocket to take the fluid covered part from me. The attendant dug around behind the counter for a few moments before opening and presenting a plastic case on the counter-top the way a waiter might present a box of fine cigars in a hotel lobby. As Anthony went to work repairing and resetting the cylinder’s piston, he began to tell me of his life in Florida before being displaced by hurricane Andrew, and how he chose Atlanta to start his new life because of a girl there he once knew. He told me about living in Stone Mountain, his wife, her kids, and how he demanded the same respect that he gave from each of them.  I could tell by the way he looked at me while he talked more than at his own hands that I wouldn’t need to buy a new part; I could tell that I was being taken care of.

I was thanking him well before he was finished repairing my foolishly bumbled wheel cylinder, and long before he walked me through how I’d re-install it safely and precisely once I got back home with it. But as I expressed my appreciation, he stopped me in mid-thank you. “There is a lot of wickedness in the world son.” He said as he paused the work in his hands to look me directly in the eye. “But there is a lot of good in the world too,” he continued, “and we of good heart have a way of finding each other.”

Without skipping a beat he put the finishing touches on resetting the cylinder’s piston and plopped the hunk of metal in my hands without even a pause to make sure I’d catch it.

We all have doubts from time to time about our paths through life, and whether or not the choices that we make are as selfless as we’d like to believe. Despite the joy that I’ve experienced over the past year, I often wonder whether the cost of time lost with friends and family is worth it. I’d like to think that I may someday know if what I’ve gained to share with those close to me can ever offset the time I’ve missed with them to acquire that wisdom; but the truth is that I probably never will. But, if Anthony’s words continue to ring as true to me as they did on that hot day in Georgia, then perhaps I can find some comfort in knowing the profound goodness in the hearts of those who have always been close to me and have faith that maybe my choices and actions are a product of the goodness in their hearts if less so my own.