The Essence of Missoula, Montana

I picked Katherine up at the airport. I’d fallen asleep in the lobby and she walked right past me to the baggage claim. My cell phone rang and I woke. We met up outside and exchanged our I-missed-yous and embraces. She looked beaten up – a weekend in big-city Chicago would be enough to kill most people.

“I’m glad to be back.” She sighed, as we started to drive out of the parking lot in my Missoula-standard Subaru with my father’s handmade cedar canoe strapped on top. I drove toward the gate where the attendant awaited our payment for the past twenty minutes of parking.

My breaks whined slightly as the car stopped and the window opened. An old woman, though still blonde, hung her head out the window. Without acknowledging me, she eyeballed the canoe.

“Nice canoe.” She said the words while still pouring over the boat, upside down and shining in the midday sun. Her head stayed engaged in the canoe but she finally shot me a glance out of the corners of her eyes. “You build it?” She queried.

I’d heard this all before. Having a handsome boat or even a bicycle in a town as recreationally drunk as Missoula, means you’re answering questions about the thing at least twice a day. But this woman seemed different. I replied, “Nope. My father built this. That’s what he’s doing with his retirement.” She continued to inspect the intricacies of my father’s craftsmanship.

“I’ve built two.” She said without expecting any reaction from me. I was surprised. She didn’t strike me as a woodworker but then again, it was Missoula. I’m regularly surprised by Missoulians.

“My husband’s on his third. What epoxy system does your dad use, do you know, hun?”

“Um.” I was still somewhat taken aback by the situation, talking shop with a woman that could be my grandmother. She had us for as long as she wanted. Until she decided to take my money and open the gate, we were a captive audience. I glanced over at my girlfriend in the passenger seat, expecting annoyance at our delay. She looked enthralled by the charm of this woman. “He uses the West System.” I returned.

“Yep. That’s what we use too.”

“He used to use System Seven…”

She completed my sentence, “….but it blushes”

“Right.” I smiled as I noticed cars lining up behind me, at least six deep now. Not one honk interrupted our canoe conversation though.

“Well your father builds a beautiful boat and you can tell him I said that. I better let you guys get out of here. It’s one dollar.”

I handed her my cash and attempted to wish her a fond goodbye in a way that I hoped she’d sense was more sincere than the 500 other goodbyes she’d get that day or the 500 she received the day before.

The gate opened and we drove out. I stopped at the stop sign waiting for my chance to enter the traffic on the highway. I looked left and then right. Katherine was still pushed back in the seat. “I love Missoula,” she sighed. I knew what she meant.

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