Feverish pace

27 Apr

Not three days back from D.C. and I’ve already redesigned my cubicle. Super PAC donation spreadsheets, hand-scrawled diagrams of money trails, knick-knacks from the Newseum. Some serious political feng shui going on. Totally nerding out.

You’d think two days of panel presentations would drive you nuts, but Sunlight put out an incredible spread. A host of pros covered everything from the basics of money in politics to tracking the paybacks for donors to figuring out how much broadcasters make on all those nasty attack ads. Of course, a lot of the seminar was directed toward covering the presidential race, something I’m not exactly in a prime position to do at a small alt-weekly in Montana. But the applications for federal, state and even local races were far beyond what I’d expected.

The real fun stuff came after, though. Hadn’t seen some of the old Kaimin gang in years, and we more than made up for it. Got rained out of the Nats game, but tossed back some primo scotch at the Jack Rose. I spent most of Monday morning drooling over the Newseum, particularly the exhibit on the changes in media coverage of presidential races (kinda pissed at the lack of alt-weekly representation throughout the museum, but whatever). Cursed the fact that I ran out of time to see the Ethics Center, then promptly cursed myself for being that geeky. Monday night was more low-key, but I got my weekly pub trivia fix with Emma and Eleena. Only wish I’d had more time before my flight on Tuesday to give the Museum of the American Indian a more thorough perusing.

Now it’s back to the grindstone. Got a feature assignment looming, and my eyes are blurring from sifting through political donation spreadsheets for two straight days. I’m working on an interesting story next week connecting western Montana to some national buzz, and it’s taking everything I learned from Sunlight to pull it together. Don’t know what I’d do without Influence Explorer, but I see I’m nerding out again. Time for some beer, some bbq, maybe a little weekend disc golf if the weather holds out. Next week is Craft Beer Week, so I’ll be sure to stop by with some non-political shit to share. Provided I haven’t had too many.

The waiting game, and other work-related activities

19 Apr

Less than 24 hours until my departure for D.C., and I’m just sitting around, waiting for members of our congressional delegation to return my phone calls. Seems like I do a lot of that these days.

There’s a kind of credo among journalists: hurry up and wait. Down here at the Indy, we get our assignments on an oft-sunny Wednesday afternoon, make a few calls, leave a few messages, send a few emails and…wait. Thursday rolls by, we knock out work on a feature or step out on assignment simply to escape our dank basement newsroom. But by Friday we’re antsy. Odds are a crucial source hasn’t called. The weekend is looming large, and the Monday/Tuesday story deadlines even larger. Friday feels like Wednesday—Hump Day, the professionals call it. If the stars align, you land every source you need, transcribe ’til your fingers bleed and make your Monday a whole lot easier. Or you wait. And wait. And wait. Somehow everything works out in the end, either through luck, a change on the story board or an alteration in the book map for next week’s issue. But yeah, we sit around a lot.

Maybe that’s why we like features so much. On a feature, you spend a day in the passenger’s side of a battered Fish, Wildlife and Parks rig tracking collared elk, or you crouch behind a car door as the hatch of a culvert trap opens and a trapped black bear dashes out, or you sit on a set of worn couches in a cramped living room talking music with local booking agents and bar owners.

One of those no-waiting-involved days.

Lately, though, even the small stuff’s been fun. Probably because I’ve been writing a lot of beer-centric pieces. I took off early one Monday to hit a new brewery in Stevensville—on assignment. I spent the better part of an afternoon tossing back beers with brewers at Bayern and talking recycling—again, on assignment. I even met up at a brewery with one of those same congressional delegates I wait by my phone for—once more, on assignment. I think the only other job that could excuse this kind of drinking frequency would be actually running a brewery. But I could be wrong.

The next few days will see me thoroughly geeking-out on federal election stuff. We’ve got a contentious race here between Sen. Jon Tester and challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg, the outcome of which could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Political analysts claim the race could pump as much as $30 million into Montana—money from candidates, parties and, yes, Super PACs. We’ve already seen three TV ads from Tester’s official campaign (at about $60,000 per ad buy), and many more from third-party groups on either side of the race. This weekend’s seminar in D.C. is all about tracking the money, and learning what’s changed in the aftermath of Citizen’s United. Plus I’ll be catching a Nats game on Sunday with my old pal Sean. It’s not catching trout at Clearwater Junction, but we can’t have it all.

The goings-on of 2012…thus far

12 Apr

Coffee’s cold this morning. Newsroom’s quiet. Not that I’d expect any different from a Thursday. Three years at the Indy and you get pretty familiar with the routine.


A lot’s happened since I last stopped over at wordpress. The run-down of what I’ve covered over the past few months: a missing Iraq vet in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, later covered by the Discovery Channel and Outside Magazine; concerns about the spread of fracking activity to north central Montana; the technological advancements at play in Missoula’s filmmaking community; money in Montana’s high-profile senate race, and where it’s going; partisan attacks on the environment; and, of course, my continued string of stories on pretty much every wildlife species in the Northern Rockies. The 8-hour trek to Fort Peck last month was grueling (surviving the Hi-Line drive required more Red Bull and Katy Perry than I care to admit). But witnessing the reintroduction of wild bison back to tribal land in Montana was well worth the drive.


I’ve locked myself into the Indy‘s Tester v. Rehberg beat through the 2012 electoral cycle, so lazy mornings like this one usually mean a romp through Federal Election Commission filings, OpenSecrets.org data and the latest Super PAC disclosures over at the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group’s “Follow the Unlimited Money.” In fact, I’m heading to Washington, D.C. a week from tomorrow for a Sunlight Foundation training seminar on following and reporting spending in federal campaigns. Great opportunity to catch up with some old Kaimin colleagues who live out that way, too.

Not that I haven’t made time for extra-curriculars. I relocated to the Riverfront area last fall, a kitschy third-floor studio about a half-block from work. It also happens to be dangerously close to the Khole. Not that I’m complaining. Spring even brought with it a nice reunion with Bill, my co-conspirator in hosting a small, informal writers’ retreat this summer. He braved a shitty drive from Utah to Butte for St. Paddy’s, an adventure I probably shouldn’t have written about for work, but did anyway.

Between assignments, I’ve been trying to rack up as many ski days as possible. The season’s crescendo, hands down, was a trip to the Bitterroot Valley’s Downing Mountain Lodge. Two days of sun-kissed backcountry powder, mixed with a generous helping of powerbars and Kettlehouse brew. But the season’s not over yet. Snowbowl’s got one weekend left, and, provided I can find a cheap pair of AT bindings around town, I’ll be sniffing out snow through July. TTFN.

The crash

26 Jun

A weird thing happened the other day. While searching through old emails trying to find my internet banking login ID, I stumbled on a message from my days as the arts editor of the Montana Kaimin. It was a reply from one of my new reporters at the time, Melissa Weaver, with a preview of Daniel Tosh’s spring 2008 Missoula appearance included. If I remember correctly, the Tosh piece was the first one she wrote for me. I hadn’t read it since it first went to print, hadn’t really even thought about it. She wrote much better articles that semester, and I left the section in her hands when I graduated. But the timing of the discovery seemed too coincidental to let slide without mention.

One year ago tomorrow, Melissa died in a plane crash just a few miles northwest of Missoula. She’d been working the cops and courts beat for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell for several months, but intended to quit and go back to school. Journalism just wasn’t what she wanted to do anymore, she’d tell me during occasional trips down to Missoula. So it was in those last weeks of her Kalispell career that she took off for what, based on media reports later, was supposed to be a short flyover of Glacier National Park. Melissa knew a guy who knew a guy who had his pilot’s license. Four of them went up, pilot included, in a 1968 Piper Arrow on Sunday June 27, 2010 (the attached link is the final National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash). They were declared missing later that evening when Melissa and her coworker, business reporter Erika Hoefer, failed to show up to a barbecue.

I first heard the news Monday morning at my desk. As a journalist, I tend to keep my eye on Montana-based newsfeeds while going about my various tasks on any given day. I remember catching glimpses of a missing plane story, but they didn’t include names, I was working diligently on deadline, and to the best of my knowledge at the time, Melissa was at her desk at work. I missed the report that included Melissa’s name among the missing. My coworker Jessica didn’t. So when she turned to me and said, “Alex, you knew Melissa Weaver from the J-School pretty well, didn’t you?” I went cold.

My friendship with Melissa started on the Kaimin all those years ago, shortly after I hired her for the spring semester. I’d see her in the office working hard on an artist profile, or she’d drop into the newsroom late on a Tuesday or Thursday night to go over my edits. We had Kaimin parties, of course, and we’d often hit the bars after a long night of putting the paper to bed. But I didn’t really start hanging out with Melissa until after graduation, during my months of unemployment when any adventure was a welcome break from the monotony of “Arrested Development” marathons and here-and-there music reviews for the Indy. I found out quick that if you wanted adventure, you called Melissa.

We hung out more and more frequently during Melissa’s senior year. I met her boyfriend Bret, helped her with arts page problems, walked her through the awarding of the annual Dennies–an “Office”-inspired joke at University of Montana President George Dennison’s expense started by my last editor, Pat. I’m fairly certain she’s responsible for buying the shot that led to me dancing on the bar between two leggy blondes at the Snow Creek Saloon in Red Lodge. And, if hazy memory serves, Melissa spent the rest of the weekend laughing at me. It’s one of the fondest memories I have of a ski trip, and I have Melissa to thank for it.

All that is the long way of explaining why, after Jessica’s newsfeed bombshell, I didn’t get much work done. I eventually went into my editor’s office and told him I was having a hard time focusing. He made it clear that, even if we were to cover the missing plane story, I wouldn’t be involved. I went home and proceeded to follow every update on newspaper websites, broadcast stations, Twitter and Facebook. Old Kaimin friends now living in different parts of the country began texting me for intel. We called each other, talked, kept each other thinking positive thoughts for Melissa and the other lost passengers. Bill encouraged me to get some sleep, though he knew none of us would. Whitney soothed me through a near-nervous breakdown. Allie promised to cover the religious front and keep Melissa in her prayers. Mike met with me at the bar, where we traded stories about Melissa, got drunk, and asked the bartender to turn the channel to local news.

All this persisted for two more days. Since my job already entails following and aggregating news, I found myself in the best position to keep everyone else up to date on the massive search and rescue effort. The details were chilling: boat searches of the Flathead River, aerial searches of the National Bison Range. Their flight over Glacier had apparently turned into a scenic trip south, where the plane dropped off the radar somewhere near Moiese. After work on Tuesday, I went home and packed all of my backcountry gear with the intent of heading to the bison range the following afternoon. I had a week off for the Fourth of July, and rather than go to my cabin for a family reunion, I vowed I would join the search effort for Melissa. I never did. By the time I got maps for the area and got home to pick up my pack, they’d found the plane. I sat waiting for word on survivors. When it came, I began the painful task of calling friends across the country to break the heart-rending news. Some wanted to talk; others simply broke down and promised to call back later. I grabbed a box of tissues and drove up Highway 200 for my cabin.

The drive to Choteau usually only lasts three hours max. I turned around twice, uncertain about my call to leave Missoula. I pulled over numerous times. As the sun set and the miles ticked off slowly, I thought about the last time I saw Melissa. Two weeks before the crash, she’d asked me if I could drive down to Billings and go to a wedding with her. She hated to ask, and kept telling me it was okay if I didn’t want to come, that she understood I knew no one in the wedding and that it was probably too much to ask a friend to sacrifice a weekend for a few drinks and some free cake. But I’d bailed last minute on a ski trip she and I had planned for Whitefish earlier in the year, so I told her I owed her. Honestly, I needed to get out of Missoula for a weekend, and the promise of hanging out with Melissa was never something I thought twice about. She was a bridesmaid, so we didn’t get to hang out much at the reception. But I ate dinner with her mom Kathy and her dad Dan, two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. And as I talked with them about medical marijuana, about college, about the Kaimin, about jobs and journalism and drinking and all the things you don’t normally talk about with adults you don’t know well, I started to realize why Melissa was such an amazing person.

Later on the night of the wedding, Melissa and I went out for some fresh air. I asked her if she was still thinking about law school. She’d told me numerous times that the Inter Lake job wasn’t a last-ditch attempt to make journalism work. It was about deciding whether or not the legal profession held as much appeal as she’d first thought. She said it hadn’t, that she was still weighing her options. I told her that whatever she decided to do, she’d be great at it. In typical Melissa fashion, she rolled her eyes.

Melissa still comes up in conversation all the time. Last fall, three friends and I made a nightmarish trek to the crash site to pay our respects with a bottle of champagne–the same brand Melissa once pulled out of her purse during a matinee of “Bruno.” From the first turn up the wrong drainage in the car to the miles of intense bush-whacking and constant “where the hell are we?” map consultations, we all agreed that Melissa would have laughed through every footfall of our foolhardy quest. I occasionally still see her at our regular haunts, hear her voice in someone else’s suggestion to buy a Slip ‘n Slide. Moments like that are almost enough to make me forget she’s gone, because I know that in some ways she’s still here. Nothing else could explain my Melissa-style reaction to me choking up when–nearly a year to the day since the crash–I find an article dating back to when I first met her: I rolled my eyes. Here’s to you, Melissa. Always in our thoughts, always with a smile.

The Next Dane Cook?

by Melissa Weaver

A comedian some call “the next Dane Cook” is coming to Missoula this Saturday.

Daniel Tosh, a Comedy Central veteran, will be performing at the University Theatre at 8 p.m. on January 26. This is but one stop during his Completely Serious comedy tour.

“He is funnier than Dane Cook, in my opinion,” said House Productions owner Cody Myers. According to Myers, Tosh’s comedic style has a “dry wickedness” to it, as he is a fan of telling unpredictable jokes that keep audiences off guard.

“What makes him unique is that he starts out with a joke with mass appeal and keeps going and going until only like six people get it,” said Myers. He said that this type of humor geared towards an informed audience makes Tosh popular among college students.

Tosh is currently touring colleges around the country, and is their number one requested comedian. He enjoys going places he has never been too, said Lily Oliver, the assistant to Tosh’s personal manager, which is why Montana seemed an ideal place for a show.

Tosh has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central, among other television appearances. His debut DVD/CD “True Stories I Made Up,” will be released this November through Comedy Central Records.

Tickets are still available. The first 200 students with a valid Griz card will be charged $15 per ticket. Otherwise, the prices for students are $25 per ticket in advance or $32 per ticket the day of the show. For tickets or more information call 243-4051 or visit http://www.griztix.com.

Competition for Dane? Only time will tell.

The anniversary

23 Jun

I’m not a huge fan of birthday celebrations. All the hoopla—the gifts and the cake and the whatnot—just doesn’t excite me the way it did when I was a kid. I used to get “Jurassic Park” action figures, a Dairy Queen Treatza Pizza, a crisp $50-bill from the grandparents slid neatly into a whimsical card. But now birthdays…well, they just seem like any other day. Last year I was stuck in the office on deadline until 7 p.m. I didn’t care. I had work to do, and it seemed silly to get bent out of shape because pop culture told me I had to get fucked up. Maybe I’m just a pragmatist. Maybe it’s the fact that my North Dakota Norwegianism makes me incapable of being the focus of attention. Maybe I miss getting “Jurassic Park” toys.

I turned 25 yesterday. The whole “quarter of a century” thing seems like a fairly significant turning point. Yet I woke up and, for five minutes, entirely forgot what day it was. My Facebook wall lit up with congratulatory messages by the time I got to work. It put a smile on my face, but the special attention—even on the interwebs—made me feel awkward. I edited proofs until lunch, hit up Charlie B’s for my customary Wednesday barbecue pulled pork po-boy, and had a wonderfully productive story meeting. Only later did my coworkers discover the day’s significance—thanks, again, to Facebook—and make plans for a post-work Kettlehouse trip. We had a great time. They bought me beers. And, thankfully, no one put too much emphasis on the “birthday” aspect of the event. Just colleagues sharing a few cold ones. I hit up a baseball game with a friend afterwards and headed home early. It was far more than I planned.

Through all that, I was awaiting some grand epiphany. Surely 25 brings with it a greater realization about life—past, present or future. What have I done? What am I doing? What will I do? Nothing. As predicted, June 22 passed just as June 21 had, and just as June 23 is now (though I must say sources were much better about returning my calls yesterday). I have no better idea of who I was, who I am or who I’m going to be than I did a month or a year ago.

I’m not going for any grand statement here. Just musing on the events of what, when I was 16 or 18 or 21, seemed like an annual milestone. I understand exactly why the personal significance has diminished in recent years: I know what I’m doing. Birthdays no longer send me down the path of introspection because, honestly, there’s not a whole lot to ponder. I’ve got a steady job that, despite my chronic complaining, I thoroughly enjoy. I may not be at the same job in a year or two or three, or even in the same profession. But I don’t feel directionless by any definition of the word. What I’m doing now will most certainly bleed gradually into what I’ll be doing later. I’m fine not knowing, not obsessing, not incessantly questioning. Living in the moment makes the beer taste better. And if some delayed secret-of-life revelation does hit tonight, it’ll just be icing on the Treatza Pizza.

The ongoing thanks

19 Jun

There are a few very specific reasons I settled on a career in journalism. I tell myself, at different times and for different reasons, that I got into the profession to connect with a grandfather who died when I was five years old, or to tell the stories of troubled or suffering loved ones that might otherwise go untold, or even to hold accountable those who occupy a position of power over the average citizen. You know, all the stuff journalists tell themselves to justify living an ink-stained life of AP Style drudgery, chronic drinking and crippling neuroticism. But as much as I bitch about it to friends and family, I would never dream of working in another field. And it seems only fitting that, today of all days, I think of and thank the guy who nudged me down this incredible and at-times dark path: me ol’ man.

I remember I was browsing through the list of electives as a high school sophomore in spring 2002, trying to decide how to fill my hours in the coming junior year, when my dad stepped into the dining room. “You should take the Introduction to Journalism course,” he said. “It’ll be fun.” I’d honestly never even thought of journalism as a point of study before. My writing abilities were, to put it bluntly, piss-poor. I doubt I’d even picked up many newspapers. I planned to head to Washington, D.C. in the fall for a week-long “law camp” for high schoolers. Not that the legal profession held much appeal for me either. I was too busy slinging books and brewing double-shot mochas at the family bookstore to even think of where my life was headed. But Dad was right. Intro to Journalism did sound like fun.

My journalism teacher turned out to be none other than my junior year AP English teach, Monte. She didn’t know what to think of me at first, since my take on reporting in class was a tad shallower than that of my classmates. But her English class honed my writing and, by the time the spring semester rolled around, I guess she felt the only way to actually make me a reporter was to throw me in the deep end. That’s how I ended up writing for the Hi-Herald and, the following year, stepping in as co-editor of the paper.

Dad gave me the initial nudge with college, too. As I deliberated over what to do with my years in higher education, he suggested I stick with what I’d come to know and attend the University of Montana School of Journalism.  My aforementioned grandfather had graduated from the very same journalism school and went on to win a Pulitzer for his work in fiction. So I enrolled as a pre-journalism student, and within months Pops called with another suggestion. “Why not go in and talk to the editor at the campus newspaper?” he posed. “The Montana Kaimin’s a good paper, and you could get some good experience there.” Three years later I was the arts editor for the Kaimin, having put in my licks since I was a frosh.

My dad was my cheerleader through it all. Still is today, despite my foul vocabulary and penchant for drinking. He reads everything I write and emails me feedback each Thursday. He suffers through my politically charged rants, my frustrated grousing about wildlife policy, my constant harping on the powers that be. And I’m glad he does; in short, he’s the reason I am where I am.

A while back, my dad made a kind of half-assed suggestion on a chairlift in Montana. He’d been egging me on to start writing a book since I took non-fiction courses senior year of college, and he finally had a plot idea he thought I should take on: murder mysteries, set at a ski resort. The concept sounded vaguely interesting at first, then began to bother me more and more, like an itch in the center of my back.

So last year I started pecking away at the first few chapters of what could become a book someday. The process has proven painfully slow. Since I write anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 words in a week for work, all of them reported and re-reported and fact-checked and transcribed, this little side-project of mine gets worked on a little bit on weekends here and there and that’s about it. Someday I might actually buckle down and work on it more feverishly, get it beyond a few solid chapters, a loose outline and some rough character sketches. But for now it’s enough to occasionally bring up in conversation with Pops and to, especially on Father’s Day, show him that I don’t just take his suggestions with a grain of salt. Here’s a taste of what I have so far:

Hap Larson’s body lay crumpled in the snow, his head lilting limp and lifeless next to his right shoulder. His goggles lay a few feet away, but his helmet remained, the strap dangling loose around his neck. Dried ribbons of blood ran from his nose and the corner of his mouth. His face had the sickly colorless hue of a hypothermia victim. If the crash against the tree hadn’t done him in right away, a subzero night on the slopes of SnowHaven had finished the job.

Gunnar Nordheim circled the corpse again. You never know ’til you see it, he thought, just how much the human body can contort. Before they’d peeled him away and straightened him out, Hap had been pretty well wrapped around the trunk of a pine. Good bet his pelvis was crushed. Probably some cracked ribs too. From the way the left leg bowed in, Don Schiffer, local sheriff and head of the SnowHaven Ski Patrol, had staked ten bucks on a busted knee.

“Sure is a mess,” Don said, drawing on seventeen years of civic service to offer his usual informed summation. He stood with his beer-paunch straining the zipper of his patrol vest, his eyes tired and his lips sagging at the corners. Hap hadn’t been a particularly close friend of his, but the sight of a dead neighbor was something you never quite got used to.

“Tree skiing’s one of the most dangerous aspects of the sport,” Gunnar said. “Gotta be focused, on your game, or…”

“No shit,” Don interrupted, nodding at Hap’s body. “Fatalistic’s more like it. You know, there’s a reason I stick to groomers.”

A few yards away, Steve Sasser, the mountain manager, stood in front of a cluster of lift operators on the side of the run, all trying to get a better view through the trees. Steve had discovered the body that morning while running the snowcat down from the summit, then saw fit to disturb Gunnar’s breakfast burrito with the news. Steve had thought it best to close down the mountain until the patrol could clean things up. Dead bodies weren’t the best marketing tool for a ski area, especially not one with SnowHaven’s family-friendly reputation. But his attitude was turning more sour as the minutes ticked by.

Hap. Gunnar remembered him from high school. Those flashy K2s, the hours spent in the weight room. They’d never gotten on too well; Gunnar, the school’s star skier, and Hap, regional wrestling champ. Not surprising the meathead went into contract labor. Gunnar wasn’t one to pass judgment on a whole profession, but he couldn’t see someone of Hap’s limited abilities doing much beyond muscle work. Work, granted, that put a hell of a lot of money in his pocket.

Gunnar wiggled the toes in his right boot. He was getting chilly standing in the snow, and Hap wasn’t going to be any deader in the next five minutes.

“Can we just get him out of here, Don?” Gunnar asked. He posed the question less like a plea than a suggestion beneficial to all present. “I’m freezing, and there’s a fresh pot of coffee calling me from the lodge.”

“No reason to keep the stiff out here any longer,” Don answered. “Fair assumption he smacked the tree last night, when they had the lights on. Soon as we get enough folks we’ll haul him out.”

Don squeezed his radio and asked where the hell the additional patrollers were. Gunnar threw down his gloves and wrestled the backboard out of the toboggan. It seemed silly to him, the idea of strapping down a corpse for the short ride down Holy Roller. Not to mention a pain in the ass. Hap was six foot tall at least and weighed two hundred pounds if he was an ounce. Even with five able-bodied hands, lifting him into the sled would be no easy task.

Rough, but like those early days on the Hi-Herald, I guess it’s a start. Thanks again, Pop. Happy Father’s Day.

The flood

16 Jun

I promised yesterday to follow up my whining with a link to my latest feature, “Hell and high water.” As I mentioned, the piece chronicles my experiences over three days of volunteering with the flood relief effort on Tower Street. I sandbagged, I hauled water bottles, I helped with backyard chores. In short, I worked alongside the folks whose homes are lost to or under threat from the rising Clark Fork River. Randy, Donna, Amanda, Jason, Kathy, Arv, Tina, Sheri—these are now folks I know, people not unlike my own neighbors past and present.

Water ebbs over Tower Street, just a few yards away. It starts an inch deep and ends in the trees down the road in a torrent. The Clark Fork River is projected to crest at around 13 feet this evening—Thursday, June 9—so there’s urgency in this work. I’m nearly two hours in and I have no idea how many bags I’ve filled. They keep disappearing in the backs of pickups, 50 to 100 at a time. There are about 40 other volunteers scurrying about different tasks. I wonder if they have any idea where these sandbags are going. I sure as hell don’t.

Last week, I called my father back in Bismarck to chat about the work I was doing on Tower. He said it made him feel guilty. Bismarck has witnessed some of the worst flooding in decades this year. New subdivisions up north are inundated. Fox Island to the south of town is under water. Roughly 600 homes were evacuated on Bismarck’s side of the Missouri River, an additional 200 on the Mandan side. Many of those homeowners opted to buy houses on higher ground in a rush, knowing full well that—with the Army Corps opening the gates at Garrison Dam upstream—they stood to gain little if anything from flood insurance. Flipping the flooded property seemed the only way to make anything back. About two weeks ago, Bismarck called on its residents to help fill half a million sandbags as reserves for those already distributed. The city hoped to draw 1,000 volunteers; 2,000 showed up.

My dad wasn’t one of them. Still recovering from jet lag after two weeks in the United Kingdom (my kid sister just completed her study abroad in Chester, England), he stayed home to tackle some long-neglected yard work. The fact that a few dozen threatened houses in Missoula ignited my volunteer fire made Pops feel like a bit of a heel. I told him whatever, he’d done enough to fulfill his civic obligations during his years with my Boy Scout troop. Plus, you know, I was on assignment.

It’s entirely likely that I’ll return to Tower in the coming days. As reported in my article, the need for sandbags in that particular neighborhood has passed. But Tower is now a staging area for relief efforts in other areas, like Clinton and Schmidt Lane. And at the very least I can check up on the neighbors, see how they’re weathering the questionable forecasts coming out of the hydrograph above Missoula. I flew over the are in a six-seater Cessna this morning while covering a different story. The river may be dropping, but there’s still water everywhere. And with all the sewage seeping up and all the toxic tailings once trapped by Milltown Dam now flowing freely in flooded waters, I wouldn’t drink a drop.


The grind

15 Jun

I’m tired.

Last Friday morning, the first words to drift in my direction as I walked into the newsroom were mildly terrifying: “So, we’re thinking of switching the flooding story to a feature.” I’d been up half an hour. I’d had a single, unsatisfying sip of coffee on my way down the basement stairs. And I’d spent nearly four hours the previous evening shoveling sand into sandbags. Tower Street, in Missoula’s Orchard Homes district, began flooding about a month ago. The Clark Fork River scoured a channel down Kehrwald Drive, ripped up the pavement, prompted the evacuation of numerous homes. I volunteered to sandbag in the interests of writing a first person story on the relief effort.

The shots my photographer got proved too compelling to narrow down to one or two, however. Hence my editor’s decision to bump my story from 850 words to 2,500. Not that I wasn’t willing to put in the extra work. In the few hours I’d spent on Tower, I’d gotten to know many of the neighbors. Their story deserved more than page 8. But, at the risk of sounding selfish, I knew the amount of work involved in a last-minute feature.

Two cups of coffee relieved most of my anxiety. I plugged away at the sandbag station Friday afternoon, hung out with Randy in his backyard, then returned Sunday to help out again. The story’s done, I’m caught up on sleep for the most part, and I’m stoked to head back out to Tower this week, next week, whenever to check in with the people who made my job so much easier.

Yet I have a backlog of work. Briefs for next week, an editorial, blurbs for our annual awards issue that got back-burnered when I took on the flood feature. And sleeping in tomorrow isn’t an option. I have a rare chance at a fly-over of the Great Burn with the subjects of my next feature, due at the beginning of July.

Just too bad it all has to stack up at once. Welcome to the grind, of which you’ll hear much griping as this blog becomes my new post-work outlet. I’ll be back tomorrow with more on the flood folks, plus a link to the story. Until then, drink a beer for me.

Ragged Universe: A tired old origins story

14 Jun

Despite my drought of posts over at Blogspot stretching back to…sweet crackers…February 2010, I’ve decided to start anew here at WordPress in the hopes I’ll be more diligent. And just like that I’m already uttering these words: I’ll have to drop in later tonight for a fresh post. In the meantime, here’s the “Ragged Edge of the Universe” genesis story as told on Blogger back in January 2009. Enjoy my excuses for pirating a shitty name from a great literary work.

Posted at raggeduniverse.blogspot.com Jan. 13, 2009:

Since high school, I’ve had a particular attachment to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The novel lies at the root of my passion for writing, as both an annually revisited source of inspiration and the catalyst for my pursuit of a career in journalism. My junior AP English teacher, Jennifer Montgomery, first approached me about my writing strengths after reading my analytical essay on “The Great Gatsby.” The essay scored me Monte’s attention as a sort of mentor and, after the dominoes fell, a position as co-editor of the Bismarck High School Hi-Herald my senior year (Monte was also the school’s journalism adviser).

Now to address my emotional connection to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I’ve always felt a close kinship with two characters in “The Great Gatsby.” The first is the novel’s title character, Jay Gatsby. A hopeless romantic, a nostalgia-prone loner in a sea of socialites. To be honest, I’ve often refused to “get over” past relationships in the hopes of creating a Daisy Buchanan of my own. But I probably share more in common with Peter Pan than Jay Gatsby, until you reach the turn in Gatsby’s character. Gatsby is not Gatsby at all, but James Gatz. Born and raised in North Dakota, Gatz reinvented himself upon reaching adulthood, thinking to put his origins behind him. Though I’ve embraced the fact that I’m from North Dakota, I’ve often caught myself struggling for a similar reinvention. I recognize the same desire to become more in the world than my beginnings, to reach for a more glamorous future. Like Gatsby, I guess I wrestle with the shame of that desire on a daily basis.

The second and stronger kinship is Nick Carraway. The story’s narrator and a fellow of Midwestern roots, Nick finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar surroundings of Eastern high society when he meets Gatsby. Nick cares too much, sees through too much of the foolishness around him to belong to the world Gatsby has planted himself in. An outsider, not sure if he really belongs anywhere, be it Yale or East Egg or the battlefields of WWI. And while I’ve grown attached to Missoula over the past four and a half years, I can’t help feeling the same way. The town is great, the friends are fantastic, but do I really belong here? What, besides school, will be my lasting connection to this place? The parties, the pot, the “Keep Missoula Weird” bumper stickers remain foreign to a simple Midwesterner. Like Nick, I guess I’m the square peg trying to fit into the hippie hole. With every annual read I step into Nick Carraway’s shoes without stepping out of my own, and it brings about moments of reflection.

So, the name of my blog. It stems from a quote by Nick Carraway, summing up his youthful adventures and seeking to explain the move east that lands him on Jay Gatsby’s doorstep:

“… I came back restless. Instead of being the warm centre of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe.”