Twenty miles southwest of Red Lodge, MT sits Glacier Lake. It is located on the Montana-Wyoming border and at just under 10,000 feet in elevation it is the headwaters for Rock Creek, flowing forty some miles before it joins the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River.
When I was three my family moved to a small plot of land near Rockvale, where the river ran less than fifty yards north of our house. The house was flanked by two large ponds, full of Louisiana bull frogs. Each night I fell asleep to a chaotic cacophony of croaking frogs and the gentle lull of the river passing by. Just across the river within view from our bank lived my older brother’s best friend, Clay Gruber. The three of us spent most our summer days swimming, fishing, catching frogs, and building and testing bike ramps into the pond. We would attempt to capsize our paddle boat and would play king of the hill on it pushing and kicking and sinking each other back down, flipping and turning the boat over and over and over. I excelled at monkey fights...two of us would hang below the diving board my dad had built for us and would try kick the other into the water. Looking back on it now, my family regards the pond and creek house and that time of life as “kid paradise”.
When I was seven or eight, we moved into Joliet. I remember crying over the loss of the pond house, not yet knowing all the fun that a boy can have in a small town. We soon made friends with Seth Keifer, who had a trampoline. Our days were now filled with bike tag, wrestling matches on the trampoline, water gun fights, and a dangerous game we dubbed “the game” which I won’t go into now, but which did leave my friend Parker with a bloody forehead and permanent scar.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back on the river, this time travelling down it on black tire inner tubes. The 45 minute float from two mile bridge to the bridge in town was called the “tour de rock creek” and every summer, even now, I make it a point to ride the tour. The creek provides the perfect amount of rapids which require some paddling to keep from running under the overhanging Russian olive trees full of spiders, but it also provides slow wide spots where we’d usually enjoy a few cold ones. That river is full of unopened beer cans as high schoolers attempt to pass one across stream to a friend and miss the mark. I can still see many of us -Ryan, Brenton, Cody, and myself-- laughing, swearing and desperately and often unsuccessfully chasing down a stray tall boy as it bobbed just out of reach. And then of course there was Ben Polesky, our larger friend with a quick wit and a propensity for trouble. You had always better stay clear of Ben on the river especially when an upcoming log jam or an overhanging tree was ahead. He had a way of coaxing his friends to float next to him only to double cross them and push himself off their tube sending them spinning into disaster. That river’s heard a countless number or cursings of Ben’s name followed by his mischievous laugh and high pitch gleeful squeal we called the “Polesky squeal”.
The river has given me much joy over the years and now is an endless source of creative inspiration. The accompanying painting to this writing brings to mind the lyric of a song by Chris Tomlin-- “All this world is light and shadow, oh the joy and oh the sorrow” This painting is all about light and shadow and though I’ve mentioned just some of the incredible joy the river has given, it has also brought great sorrow. In the Fall of 2010, it took the life of my friend Ryan. The pain this has caused his family and friends is very real. All I can think of is that the very things that bring us the most joy also have the capacity to inflict the most pain and, most importantly, somehow through the mix of this clash of emotions and realities flows endless beauty, unaware and unaffected by whether we notice it or not.
I live in a small town, and a river runs through it.