Like a Riverbank by Travis Truax

view of Montana landscape - big sky, some mountains

You write out of Montana now—with July’s still-snowy mountains. You are led up and down a scrambled map, open prairie, the bluest lakes, the sharpest peaks, though your mind ticks backward most of the time, lives piecemeal in the past, like Joe Wilkins or Judith Kitchen. Nostalgic questions at each bend, like William Stafford or James Wright. You gather air and land and road, corner lots, dirty ponds. You blame no one. No one book is guilty. A lifetime of the particular, with years of practice, sneaking into every story. The practical and the magical falling into every scene. An Ansel Adams life, a Raymond Carver heart—with Richard Hugo’s car. The map is alive with names and faces, small places where they meet. Winfield, Kansas. Boone, North Carolina. Duncan, Oklahoma. Martin, South Dakota. And here, a valley out west, out west and up. Eye-grabbing fencelines, magpies and peaks. Gravel dust and distance. This is Montana, though Oklahoma moves through most pages, though Virginia rock lives on each river bottom—no matter where. Where rent gets paid, where coffee’s drunk, where phone calls are made. It’s all here. With the hawk’s gaze, with the grueling mountain passes, with the dragged-along novel of where you’ve been.

***

I know the rivers’ names. Some of them. Some of my rivers. Platte, Shenandoah, Madison and Gallatin; Missouri, Cimarron, Blue and Green. On and on. They’ve been a perennial source. I am filled and refilled with each spring runoff. How the bank reveals a little more, a little less, each May, each September. How the slow water gathers. How it runs hard for old places. I live like that—like a riverbank. Not the water, but what the water shows. Where it’s been. Where it was. Where it grew a little wider, saving what it could.

***

You face the story. That your life was aimed west from age twelve. That Virginia suddenly became back there or back then. That the fall colors stayed behind. The air of Oklahoma too thin, too dry, rainfall too little, the season too short, to produce much October gold or November red. You face the drive. You face the look-back drive west. How did the pioneers do it? Sliding out of the thick woods of Tennessee, out of Ohio, out of Appalachia, to find only grass and dust and the biggest sky they’d ever seen? You remember Arkansas. How much it felt like Virginia, like what you knew. Like what your mother knew. Her tears beyond Memphis, when the big river was done, the car rolling on across the Ozarks. All the summer green. All the overgrowth. All too much like the back roads of Virginia—space that was home. The only space she knew. You watched the towns pass: Conway, Russellville, Fort Smith. Another river. And then the sign—OKLAHOMA—carved in flushed-red granite. Tough and plain along the shoulder. Framed by the arid sky of the southern plains. Framed by blue. From there, it was all a straight shot. Your dad behind the wheel. Your sister asleep. The map in your mother’s lap.

***

Last year I sat beside the Missouri River—where it starts, blending the Jefferson, the Madison, the Gallatin. Three Forks, Montana. Aptly named. Here is where the long river begins its long trip east. Here is where Lewis and Clark camped, plodding their way against the river. West, against the grain. Against the land—because here is where everything aims east, the land, the river, the wind. I sat along the bank, sealed in a couple jackets, October air biting at my ears. The river brushed the bank beneath my feet, splashing against dirt and rock, tearing away the prairie. An eight-foot bank. Quick water splashing east. I didn’t know which way to look. Upstream or down. East or west. Lewis and Clark pushed on west from here, up the Jefferson, while behind them the whole of the plains welcomed the river they were leaving. I sat still, small below the rocky bluffs, eyes up and down the river bank. A metronome of gazing. East. East awhile. Then west.

***

You look backward, not over your shoulder, but through the camera. Today’s story pressed against yesterday’s weather. Today’s breeze sweeping through yesterday’s trees. Your mother used to keep a prayer journal, and you remember trying one yourself. Young and full of wishes. Full of heart. You prayed for good grades. For your parents’ health. You prayed for your friends while outside your bedroom trains roared cross-country in all directions. Ones you barely heard. Ones you imagined. Virginia-bound. Virginia-free. Where were the tracks? Where were the books that brought it all to life? The photos in the frames in the hallways in the homes. Places propped up against the future. Home is what you carry. Home is what you take. Home is the corner store that closed years ago, never falling down. You walk by, your rucksack stuffed, blaming no one.

***

Once the road’s direction didn’t matter. But now it does. Now any sign, any on-ramp, dredges up a past or future I’ve imagined well. East is a past I’ve left and now carry like a wallet, always on me, creasing the pants I wear. West is the fresh end of the present, barely a future, tangled with the ruddy banks of a dozen rivers. Each trip back, each trip “home,” each crossing of the Mississippi means, where I’ve stopped; here’s where I start; here’s where I’ve imagined change. Once the Mississippi meant new—on the first, long trip west—with wide eyes and a moving truck. Now the big river only separates things, divides my life like so many calendars. West of Memphis is the point of no return. The bridge gone. The river gone. Appalachia gone—any chance at stasis stuck along the wide river’s soggy bank.

***

You understand these feelings. How things along the shoulder always seem to match the road. How the house at the hairpin curve and the covered bridge mean: almost. Almost there. Almost home. The broken oak branch, the shaking pines. Gravel dust thick as smoke. Summer, and the car is moving, gliding by mailbox after mailbox, stream after stream. Your dad is driving. The car pulled along by the act of trying to remember, trying to reclaim. Trying to see how it all happened. How the blue of day turned night. How the window-down roar turned silent.

Parked out front. Asking nothing. Out of the woods your wandering dog comes running.

***

Maybe I wish I could have known my grandparents more, or at least remember more. We left Virginia for Oklahoma when I was twelve. Their slow recede from my reality, their faded faces. Goodbye to Grandma Jean, Pap Pap, Grandma Marybelle—names I never say anymore to myself or anyone. I haven’t in years truly tried to remember them, to give thanks for their part in my growing up— those critical, untapped years before I turned twelve and they were gone and a whole word opened up beyond Blacksburg or Bristol or that gap Daniel Boone moved through.

***

Zoom out and things are easier. Expand the image. Remove the frame. The land from a plane is, in a way, smaller. No big book shelves. No summer traffic. No enormous city to tackle the imagination. Looking down, the land is wider, easier, less specific. A grid—with a million directions meaning home. A hundred lazy rivers.

***

I wonder about Meriwether Lewis. Spend evenings imagining his trip. The bison by the thousands. The cold Dakota snow. His first glimpse of a prairie dog, a pronghorn. His journal. His diet and diplomacy. A subtle man. A lot like the plains he covered, not the painstaking mountains. To the end of the country, to the end of the Columbia. West from St. Louis for a year and a half. How many miles? How many bruises, close-calls and gifts? How many coyote barks or grizzlies before the Pacific Ocean came crashing into view? How many winter nights before he turned around and came back?

***

You bend to pick up the question again. Strain your back at it. Rig a pulley system. Finally flip open a book to read your way away from the heap.

***

I pick up William Stafford’s The Way It Is. I read the poem, “Ask Me.” I apply it across the board. I answer nothing. Simply nod along to the questions I’ve carried years. Mile after mile.

Ask me whether that house is still there, whether it ever was. Whether it could be, someday, waiting. Ask me whether I recall at all the Shenandoah mornings, those gangly oaks, those pot-holed roads. Ask me where my father was in June, at dawn, say ’89 or ’91. Ask me how my mother felt, watching all the evening deer. Ask me where I hid. Ask me where the final river-bend flows, where the last hill sleeps—where the rusted tractor still burns below a sycamore in the neighbor’s field.

Ask me where I’ve been, where it has been, where the slow song stops and all the longing ends.

***

You write out of Montana now—July’s dry wind blowing across the valley. You’ve given up the scrambled map. People say, “Your indirect life is going somewhere.” And you grab the fence. You kneel at the fading glacier’s base, standing where it was, where it’s been, where the slow scrape of ice scarred the land. How do you begin a letter home—knowing the worst lies couldn’t help? Knowing the best truths are hardly practical? Knowing you are—by snow or dust—where you are? The long line of roads back are tattered with your steps. The dozen rivers you’ve loved are bent at the creases, carrying your reprieve, your prodigal mornings with sandbars and swallows. The gradual rise of land you see, gathering at the lake’s last breath, is the start. The past catching up and prodding—

Have you seen the Shenandoah?

Have you seen the soggy Platte?

Have you seen the way a friend’s face can shine—gathering the evening on a small creek in Boone?

No river comes by carrying anything more than where you’ve been.

travis-truaxTravis earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2010. After college, he worked in various national parks out west, including Zion, Olympic and Yellowstone. He worked as an editorial assistant for the University of Oklahoma Press before settling in Bozeman, Montana, in September 2015. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, High Desert Journal, Pinyon Review, Raleigh Review, and The Cossack Review.

 

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/marko-forsten
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