Missoula Memories

[This post is inspired by
1) Finishing William Kittredge’s memoir this afternoon, and
2) My mysterious, anonymous, Missoula reader…]

Oh, I remember Missoula.

It wasn’t like we had no place better to go. It’s just that Missoula was the best place to go. As an undergrad in Walla Walla, I was a hard and fast twenty-minute mountain bike ride to the base of the Blue Mountains. The prestigious, jagged Wallowa Mountains were only two hours to the south and the Palouse Falls just a hot half-day drive into the desert. It’s not as though we could have complained – and we didn’t.

But Missoula had the benefits of a small city yet the trueness of a small town. Top it off, the mighty Clark River ran smack through the heart of downtown, which itself sat in the center of a bowl of mountains. And when you got sick of that, all you had to do was point south down the state highway for an hour and the west side of your car was smack pressed into grizzly country and the Bitterroot Mountains.

Getting there was half the fun, as my annual trips in college always occurred the week before finals in May. My rugby teammates and I would fling ourselves into schools vans, one for the women’s side and one for the men’s. Two hours into the drive, round about Spokane, I’d get antsy for evergreens (Walla Walla seems nearly desert – don’t be fooled by the irrigated green waves of wheat starts that hug the hillsides like babies suckling the breast of the Earth). We’d stop for coffee and gas and the men would start drinking and before I knew it half the women were in the men’s van and the other half of the men were in the women’s van. Thus, the festivities began – and though our drivers were always sober, it was not unlikely to catch a glimpse of half naked ruggers in the rearview mirror. Strip poker goes Interstate.

Imagine, if you will, this top-heavy Ford van barreling down I-90 at seventy miles per hour with half drunk and all horny rugby players in it (but always, one or two of us women hugging our books, and Goddammit, I’m trying to study here! – which was of course respected.) Then imagine the rookie: She has made it nine months through her first season. She has learned the fifty shades of purple and seen them on her bruised thighs. She has been piss-your-pants scared standing opposite a meaty opponent from Calgary and she has been sock-it-to-ya’ hungry for a hit around the lean legs of a Lewis and Clark College fly half. She has played in snow, experienced how it scrapes the skin then numbs the very damage it does. She has befriended mud, painted it on her face, rolled in it, pissed in it (yes), eaten it. She has, most importantly, discovered her physical strength as a woman and achieved a powerful glimpse at the force of her own will. She has become a rugger.

This trip to Missoula, though she doesn’t know it yet, will mark her for life. The trip is single in purpose for both the men’s and women’s sides: Participation in the largest rugby tournament west of the Mississippi, Maggotfest, sponsored by none other than the University of Montana Missoula Maggots themselves. For three days and three nights the open ball fields of Missoula were ours. The county fairgrounds served as the party barn. The UM campus shuddered under this siege of such brazen confidence, this strange phenomenon of ruggers, the audacity of our imposed subcultural norms. We got the shit kicked out of us to the backdrop of snow-capped mountains three years in a row, then my senior year my teammates and I went unregistered to the tournament to play on a patchwork team of other unregistered ruggers. We made up a phantom name, beat even the Regina Breakers from Canada (talk about name intimidation), and went on to win the tournament.

Sometimes instead of taking I-90, we’d take Highway 12, which snakes out of Washington, cuts across the armpit of Idaho and the Clearwater National Forest, then rolls you smack into Missoula proper. One road. Six hours. Press on. Years later, this is how I went in order to backpack in the Bitterroot Mountains. Missoula was changed – the expansion making it seem at times flat – but the heart of the land was still there. My boyfriend and I stayed at a friend’s house for the night, headed out into the backwoods for a week, and five miles in realized we’d left half of our food back in Missoula. Too enamored with the brown cut peaks and summertime wildflowers, we settled in and ate grits with peanut butter and carrots for five days. Later, we bushwhacked six miles off trail to summit El Capitan, peed in the snow at the summit, then hiked all the way back down to cook that damn ground corn for summer while the sun set. It was some of the best damn backpacking I ever did and all along I knew Missoula would be there when we got out, happy and hot with showers and espresso then finally, a cold beer.

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