Tess Fahlgren & Richard Hugo: Montana's Other Face

Jun 26, 2015

Tess Fahlgren knows that art can thrive in the isolated prairie towns of Eastern Montana. "Driving Montana," by Richard Hugo, is a poet's tribute to Montana's small towns and open vistas, and the creativity that connects them.

I am the youngest of six in a family from Glasgow, a small town in northeast Montana. My father is a small-time rancher and a poet who grew up nearby. When asked, he stands and recites original pieces from memory. My mother grew up in Houston, Texas. From the south she brought a jewelry box of money from all over the world, a deep focus on the arts and an accent that grows stronger while on the phone with her family. Our childhood summers were spent performing on the historic stage of the Fort Peck Theatre. Winters found us painting landscapes in the basement or reading encyclopedias from our expansive library.

In Missoula, where I live now, people see the plains as merely “the other side,” but I know the surprising brilliance there. On New Year’s Day my father and I drove the expanse of dirt roads south of Fort Peck Lake. There, an old sandstone sheep corral encircles an acre beside a deserted field. While little grows in this dry soil, Eastern Montana has fostered a creative microclimate for artists, poets, and thinkers.

Despite dire predictions of the end of rural towns, new businesses crop up. My mother opened a downtown art gallery. In order to take part in this artistic renaissance, I drive across the state many, many times. Watching the mountains shrink in my rearview mirror as I descend into the prairie has become part of the experience of going home. It is a deep breath before diving into the remote and lovely world that is Montana’s other face.

"Driving Montana," by Richard Hugo: 

The day is a woman who loves you. Open.
Deer drink close to the road and magpies
spray from your car. Miles from any town
your radio comes in strong, unlikely
Mozart from Belgrade rock and roll
from Butte. Whatever the next number
you want to hear it. Never has your Buick
found this forward a gear. Even
the tuna salad in Reedpoint is good.

Towns arrive ahead of imagined schedule
Absorakee at one. Or arrive so late--
Silesia at nine--you recreate the day.
Where did you stop along the road
and have fun? Was there a runaway horse?
Did you park at that house, the one
alone in a void of grain, white with green
trim and red fence, where you know you lived
once? You remembered the ringing creek,
the soft brown forms of far off bison.
You must have stayed hours, then drove on.
In the motel you know you’d never seen it before.

Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 6/24/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)