Archive for June, 2011

do you see her?

Our Lady of the Rockies has an underbite, and the heavy jaw of a boxer — Our Lady of Pain. This, offset by two tiny hands that emerge from her robe, palms offered meekly to all who might be moved to worship her bulky whiteness, which shines in the night, among neon signs for Econo Lodge and McDonald’s. Up on a ridge east of town, this ninety-foot sculpture of Mary, Mother of Jesus, is so much smaller than her competition of interstate establishments. But from a distance, she is beautiful. It is only up close that her ill-proportioned figure becomes obvious, the suggestion of a knee where her ankle should be — or perhaps she is kneeling, beaten down by the wind that stirred up a tornado four hours east, outside of Billings.

Leaving Butte this morning, where Our Lady shrouded herself in clouds and rain, I was at the end of a week-long, 1,500-mile tour of Montana. I arrived in Butte last night, under Mother Mary’s hallucinatory glow, and had given up on the idea of doing any site-seeing, discouraged by miles of construction and poor weather. Instead, I studied a pamphlet for Our Lady of the Rockies, which featured a photo of a helicopter hoisting her massive head to its designated spot 3,500 feet above the city. I wondered, of what spiritual significance to Butte is this tiny, glowing light on a hill overlooking the Berkeley Pit, a former copper mine nine hundred feet deep and laden with dangerous chemicals? Lost among the other lights, Mary is one more speck polluting the night sky, where, if we had a chance, we could probably see the stars.

I’d just come from Kalispell in northwestern Montana, where I’d spent a day walking the neighborhoods around my hotel in a post-travel haze, just happy to be using my legs. My trip had traced a circle within the perimeter of Montana, taking me along the hi-line — a stretch of nearly mountainless plains that looked a lot like Illinois — where the Fort Peck Indian Reservation nestled the Missouri River, and where I spent the best three days of my trip. This landscape contrasted greatly with that of Glacier National Park, where high, snowy peaks rose as violent as shark’s teeth out of the prairie west of Havre. I drove through the park, consumed by green (I saw none of the beetle kill that reddened trees south of here), a green nourished by unusually high precipitation. Yet, surrounded by all this natural beauty, I felt uneasy, and it took some time to pinpoint the cause.

The Glacier Park area differs from the hi-line in a second way.  Though the Flathead Reservation is nearby, the people I saw were exclusively white, except for three black people walking up the street in East Glacier Park Village.  Many of them were tourists like me, gawking from speeding cars when waterfalls of blue-green glacial water were exposed by gaps in the trees — flashes of super-beauty, each one like a sucker punch. Crosses littered the sides of the road  — some, single clusters of five or six crosses stacked on top of one another.

Despite its beauty, I was happy to leave Glacier Park, where, even in early summer, the sense of being on a cruise ship plagued me, where I went too long without seeing a non-white person, and where every museum I went to seemed disproportionately filled with the history of European settlers. The mountains, seen from the distance, seemed almost artificial, something fashioned with human hands and lit up to make us believe they were the real thing.


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