Blue Highways: Browning, Montana
Saturday, December 17, 2011 at 11:24AM
Michael L. Hess in Barenaked Ladies, Blue Highways, Blue Highways, Browning, DUI, DWI, Metallica, Montana, William Least Heat-Moon, accident, alcohol, auto, road trip

Unfolding the Map

Rolling into Browning, Montana, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) comments on the number of crosses marking car accidents he sees on the reservation.  If you care to reflect with me a little, I will write a bit on alcohol and alcoholism and its effects - something I'm acquainted with very personally.  Be sure to check out Browning on the map.

Book Quote

"The state of Montana had marked spots of fatal car crashes with small, pole-mounted steel crosses: one cross for every death.  Along the highway, as it traversed the Blackfeet reservation, the little white crosses piled up like tumbleweed: a single, a pair, a triple, a half dozen, a group of nine.  What began as an automobile safety campaign, the blackfoot - once among the best of Indian horsemen - had turned into roadside shrines by wiring on plastic flowers.  Somebody later told me the abundance of crosses around the reservation was 'proof' of chronic alcoholism.

"The reservation town of Browning, unlike Hopi or Navajo settlements, was pure U.S.A.: and old hamburger stand of poured concrete in the shape of a tepee but now replaced by the Whoopie Burger drive-in, the Warbonnet Lodge motel, a Radio Shack, a Tastee-Freez.  East of town I read a historical marker that said the Blackfeet had 'jealously preserved their tribal customs and traditions.'  Render therefore unto Caucasians the things which be Caucasian."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 4

Downtown Browning, Montana. Image by Robinsoncrusoe and seen at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host page.

Browning, Montana

One thing that has been apparent to me in the past few years is the proliferation of roadside shrines to those who have died in car-related accidents.  In New Mexico, where I live, you see these shrines all over the place, as lovingly tended by heart-broken family members and friends as grave markers.  Lately, a new type of marker has sprung up in my state - the "Ghost Bicycle."  These representations of bicycles mark a place where a bicyclist was killed by a car.

In New Mexico, we are no strangers to drunk driving.  It is the stuff of horror on the front page of our newspapers when we read about somebody driving while intoxicated, entering a freeway at high speed on the wrong side, and plowing headlong into a car or van or pickup.  It causes us to be angry at the ineffectiveness of our state government and our justice system when we read that a guy with 15 previous arrests for DWI has been picked up yet again after being pulled over by police.

It even serves as the butt of macabre jokes in our state.  Steven Michael Quezada, who is a New Mexico comedian and talk-show host and who also is a regular actor on the hit television series Breaking Bad, told a joke at an event I attended about how jet airplanes, instead of dropping an oxygen mask out of the ceiling in times of crisis, should drop a bottle of tequila instead.  After all, said Quezada, "we're from New Mexico.  We all know it's the drunks who survive the crashes."

One reason that LHM's quote hits home is that I live in a state with many Native Americans who live on pueblos and reservations.  The past history of white relations with natives, the vagaries of biology, and perpetual economic crises in Native areas have teamed up in my state and in others, like Montana, where there are native populations to create a high incidence of alcoholism.  In New Mexico, where there are lots of wide open spaces and where people have to drive long distances, especially on reservations, the chances of choosing not to drive after a longer-than-expected solo trip to the bar are much less than in a city, where one can call a taxi or take public transportation.

I don't want to give the impression that it's just native peoples in my state who suffer from the effects of alcohol.  Alcohol cuts across lines of ethnicity, gender and class.  Plenty of people from all walks of life have run into problems with alcohol and driving.  I was just talking to a friend who related the story of a person he knows who made a bad choice of having a couple of wines while on cold medicine and driving home.  She was pulled over and now faces criminal penalties, financial hardship, lawyer fees, higher insurance costs, and probation.  I too have known people who make a bad decision and have paid for it.  Nor do I have any sense of superiority over this issue.  When I was younger, it could have easily happened to me and probably should have on a couple of occasions.

It also hits home to me because I grew up in a family dominated by alcoholism.  My father's habit was to come home from work around 6:00 pm.  On bad nights he had already been to the bar.  My sister recalls watching him drive through our wooden gate as if it wasn't there after having had a few at our local bowling alley.  Once home, he would take a tall glass, put 5-6 ice cubes in it, fill the glass three-quarters of the way to the top with Early Times whiskey, and then top it off with water.  He did this 2-3 times a night.  On good nights for my sisters and I, he would pass out in his chair.  On bad nights, he would try to engage us in conversation.  On really bad nights he would molest me if my mother wasn't home.  I can remember him grabbing his gun to hunt after a few drinks and having to take his gun from him because he was so unsteady I was afraid that he might fall and accidentally shoot himself or me.  I can remember being in his truck as he drove intoxicated and wondering if I would make it home.  I really sometimes wonder how I survived my childhood.

You'd think after dealing with that in my childhood that I'd be a teetotaler.  You'd think that I'd give up alcohol after also learning that my biological father (my father that I write of above was my adoptive father) was an alcoholic whose death was likely caused by years of drinking.  I've weighed these things over in my mind especially wondering if there is a genetic trait.  Yet my own relationship to alcohol has been complicated.  I like a good crafted beer like an IPA with my dinner even as I deplore what alcohol has done to people I know and love.  I love a good glass of wine, especially a meaty red, once in a while.  Occasionally, I'll have a little hard liquor like a good Irish whiskey (my wife's dad's favorite sure to be served this upcoming holiday), a good sipping tequila, or a smooth Kentucky bourbon.  Once in awhile if I'm feeling safe I'll even allow myself to be a little intoxicated. 

I guess I treat alcohol like a partly feral cat, similar to one that I grew up with and which seems to be a metaphor in my life.  This cat, ironically named Sweetie, would rub up against me and purr her invitation to pet and rub her.  She seemed to enjoy the petting, until with no notice she would turn, hiss and slash my arm with her claws and run.  I've decided that it is best to treat anything or anyone that seems so inviting, so enjoyable and promises pleasure and euphoria with a bit of healthy skepticism and take small doses.  If I get too involved and get slashed and hurt, well, I have nobody else to blame because I know full well the consequences.  We all know that such pleasures, like alcohol, can mess you up and make you dependent, addicted and can ultimately ruin your life if you let them.  The key for me, and one that I've normally been very good at, is to be very aware of my limits, and never cross them.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to give you a rare double shot of music, Littourati.  I have a song in my collection by the Barenaked Ladies, Alcohol from their album Stunt, which sounds like a fun, upbeat party song but if you read the lyrics it shows the complication and sadness that comes with alcohol.  The second is a more straight up song that could be about any addiction by Metallica.  While I never completely jumped on the Metallica bandwagon, their brand of heavy metal was very hard driving and very profound which is why they are considered so highly by their fans.  This song I've included is called Sad but True from their album Metallica.

If you want to know more about Browning

Blackfeet Community College
Blackfeet Nation
Browning Chamber of Commerce
Town of Browning
Wikipedia: Browning

Next up: Cut Bank, Montana

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