The Big Chill In Big Sky Country

Monday, November 5, 2012


We made our way to Whitefish, Montana, by flying into Calgary, Alberta. Sean and I met early on the El tracks in Chicago. It was 6 a.m. and 95 degrees out, and the drops of sweat were starting to make a lovely little scene beneath the armpits of my gray, cotton shirt. My new puppy had woken me up at 3 a.m. after pissing her crate, and Sean’s eight-month-old baby kept him awake all night with a chest infection. Chicago was in the midst of a heat wave that would ultimately kill 18 people. Though not dead, we felt like we were taking the beginning steps in a very yuppie version of Mao’s Long March. We were already limping as the trek began.

We were off to Montana for our old high school friend’s wedding. Raurie’s invitation listed three potential airports for our consideration: Kalispell, Montana; Spokane, Washington; and Calgary, Alberta. Although the closest, a ticket to Kalispell cost a grand, and Spokane wasn’t much cheaper. At six hours away and with many curvy mountain passes to traverse, Calgary was the furthest from Whitefish. But it was by far the cheapest, and because we were traveling stag, it was the obvious choice for two old friends looking for a bit of an adventure in the Mountain West.

Sean and I had been friends for almost 20 years. We met on the first day of summer school before our freshman year, and our early bond quickly developed into a lasting friendship. Sean was the classic Chicago Irish Catholic kid. The fourth child in a family of eight, Sean was accustomed to siblings, and I fast became another brother. My time in high school was spent eating cold lasagna leftovers in his kitchen and sleeping on the couch in the basement bedroom he shared with his brother Brendan. Sean, in turn, took care of my family’s dogs when we went on vacation and once scored a summer job as the nanny for the children of my mom’s best friend. Sean was the first person to visit me when I went to college and the last guy I had a beer with before our trip to Montana. Sean was family.

Sean was also a new father. He had his son a few years after getting married and was in the midst of weighing his work obligations against his devotion to family. Sean had a sexy job, the kind of job young boys fantasize about and old men beg for. Sean worked at a large international company and was involved in high-profile global sports. Sean’s job took him to games in Singapore and South Africa; Dubai and Dublin. It also took him away from his family with a frequency that was getting harder to tolerate.

Raurie’s wedding was important to the both of us. Like Sean, Raurie was born into a big Irish family. But her twenties were full of tragedy. In a span of only six years, Raurie was forced to bury her two brothers and her two parents. Her brother, Burke, a wild man with a mane of red hair and a flame-red spirit as wide as the Montana sky, was murdered in New York. A year later, Raurie’s father died in a car accident on his way home from Burke’s memorial service up in Canada. Her brother Tommy died next. Her mother soon followed. We’ve all had struggles, but Raurie’s were Shakespearean, fraught with an intensity that few will ever know.

But Raurie was a survivor. She had an internal spark that somehow refused to burn out. She walked through Dante’s nine stages of hell and emerged as a woman whose grief cut deep but never disfigured. My old friends had met too many times to mark Raurie’s pain. Her wedding was a chance to celebrate her joy.

We arrived in Calgary a little after noon. Although we knew Calgary to be about six hours from Whitefish, Sean and I tacked on another 30 minutes the moment we saw our car. We were given a Toyota Yaris — a car that does not scream the mountains of Montana. It’s the kind of car that could get you killed in Sarah Palin’s Alaska. It was perfect for two liberals from Chicago.

The Yaris handled the treacherous drive admirably. We dubbed ourselves the little engine that could, chanting, “I think I can, I think I can,” as we made our way up the steep two-lane road. A few hours into the drive, Sean had to take a white-knuckled call from his wife about emergency medical tests on his son. No matter how far away, the realities of fatherhood follow you. Adding an unneeded element of drama, the high mountain walls periodically blocked cell phone reception and made understanding the situation complicated. After five calls and a few nervous tears, it was clear that the tests came back negative. Sean had earned his allotment of beer for the weekend.

Sean and I were meeting up with some old friends, most of whom we hadn’t seen in years. No one in the group brought a partner and all of us had traded the requisite e-mails before the trip exclaiming how excited we were to have the opportunity to reconnect. The five of us had rented a small two-bedroom cabin for the weekend. The two girls would take the two beds in the back room, and the three guys would figure out how to divide the remaining twin bed and pull-out couch.

I was most excited to spend time with Caitlin. Caitlin was always the beautiful girl whose curly hair matched her curly personality. She was quick to curse, could drink whiskey with the boys and her depth inspired love from men and women alike. I met her when she was the sweet girl, watched her morph into the wild child, laughed through her stage as the badass, and now admired the mother, the wife and the successful public health expert that she had become. She was always someone who just got it, and she understood me with an easy ability that matched her effortless style. We were fast friends in high school and, though occasionally tempted to date, decided early that ours was a friendship of kindred spirits that should never be sullied by sex.

I had last seen Caitlin two years earlier at her home in Washington, D.C. I was three months into a painful separation that would ultimately lead to a crushing divorce. She was three months into an unexpected pregnancy after years of being told that she would never have children. We both were far away from our high school selves. We spent the visit confessing our deepest fears about the new stages we were entering. I got drunk with her husband while she chose the music for our late night gab fest. Our hug goodbye at the airport was long. We both cried. We were never the friends that spoke much between visits and we knew our lives would be radically different when we were next together. Our tears marked the end of whatever chapter we were living. In the two years since our visit, we had only spoken a couple of times.

The weekend was also a chance to spend time with Jennifer. Jennifer was my oldest friend. I met her when I was three years old when we were both weaning ourselves from diapers and suffering through nap time in Ms. Mastrad’s preschool class. In one conversation we could talk about the pet cow in our first grade classroom, our sixth grade spin-the-bottle sessions at Kate Clark’s house, her high school fling with Rick Ciccione, our one drunken kiss in college, and our two-week backpacking trip through Peru when we were 22. We had shared a life, our past fused together by common memories of the same people.

But, like all siblings, our relationship was changing. Jennifer was a mother of two young boys and had moved out of the city to a nice home 45 minutes outside of Chicago. Our weekly talks had been replaced by quarterly calls. Long e-mails had been replaced by short text messages. Our lives separated by marriage and divorce; children and childlessness; urban and suburban; male and female. Our friendship was still strong, but there was an unspoken recognition that the nature of our bond was shifting. There was more past to our relationship than present. We were long overdue for a new memory.

* * *

As we pulled into Whitefish, Sean and I stopped at the local liquor store and picked up the beer and wine that is required at any reunion. Whitefish is a small town in the northern part of Montana. At the doorstep of Glacier National Park, it is surrounded by a rugged set of mountains and a host of white water rivers that make you question your sanity for living anywhere else. We were staying at a lodge with about 50 rustic cabins, all appropriately nestled into the oversized brush that decorates Montana’s summer landscape.

The changes that time brings range from the profound to the trivial. Sean and I asked the receptionist for the cabin number that Margi, another old high school friend, had booked for our group. We said the reservation name was “Johnston” — Margi’s last name — and were directed to cabin 46. Our arrival was unceremonious. No one was in the cabin and we had stupidly forgotten to grab keys when we checked in. Not to worry. After 13 straight hours of travel, Sean and I were more than happy to toast ourselves. We had a case of cold beer, a few bags of Doritos and time to kill.

We sat on the porch, shoes off, and quickly crushed two beers each. Lining the porch mantle with our empty bottles and stinky socks, Sean and I looked like we had been drinking there for hours, blind to the fact that Margi changed her last name to Browne when she married. When the real “Johnson” family showed up, we were semi-buzzed and shoeless and our luggage sat open on a porch that was obviously not our own. The Johnsons were mildly amused — and slightly disturbed — at the sight. Order was restored when we offered them some of our beer, explaining that we were the self-appointed welcoming party for Raurie’s wedding.

The first few beers did little to soften my subdued nervousness. I would be seeing many people for the first time since my divorce. Although it had been nearly three years since my marriage ended, the mind-fuck of divorce lingers, and embarrassment can surface like an unwanted pimple on prom. I was different: more cynical, with a few more rough edges and unsure of my new narrative. I had long been known as the nice boyfriend and the supportive husband. I had always accepted the praise and embraced the role of the loyal spouse. I dispensed advice about marriage with naive confidence that, in retrospect, makes me nauseous. I bought into an early love that I felt — no, that I knew — would last forever.

But early love has to mature and Anna and I were unable to transition our young love away from our young selves. Our memory of living out of our car in Wyoming after college could not be reconciled with living off two professional salaries in a nice Chicago condo. Our marriage ended with a joint sadness that was as much about saying goodbye to one another as it was about letting go of the memories we built our life upon. Every divorce changes you. Divorcing at 30 scars you.

Sean and I tracked down our real cabin — cabin 25 — after texting Jennifer. Jennifer was the only one who had arrived and had spent the day by herself up in Glacier. We exchanged hugs and detailed the kind of upbeat assessment of our travel that no one remembers or cares about. We took quick showers and headed to the welcome dinner: a large pig roast that we could already smell.

The group filled out at the reception dinner. After flying into Spokane, Caitlin rolled in with Brody. A musician and composer, Brody and I had seen one another no more than a handful of times since graduation. Brody was the kind of friend whose memory stopped in high school. I knew him as the ambitious and clean-cut student off to Georgetown to one day become a lawyer. My lasting image was eating breakfast with him when I was 18, waking at his house after I got drunk on his parent’s gin and made out with Margi to a Tom Petty CD.

I knew very little about Brody’s current life. He was living in New York, came out as bisexual after high school and had shed his clean-cut image for several body piercings. He was living the artist’s life, replete with a Brooklyn loft. But, like all old friends, I didn’t need to know the current details to understand Brody’s larger life. No one is ever very far from their boyhood home.

The Montana sun was hot during the reception dinner. The local beers went down easy. The roast pig was a perfect mix of fat and salt and went great with the baked beans and tomato basil salad. There was plenty of music to backdrop the initial conversations about how nice it was to be out in Montana and how happy we all were for Raurie.

The humor was easy and fast and frequently referenced names from high school that none of us had thought of in years. There was no talk of jobs back home. There was no one to impress. Raurie’s slide show reminded us all that, for once, we were at a celebration and not a memorial. The toasts touched on her loss, but focused on the relationship she had gained. I can’t remember if the music was still on when we left the dinner, but I know we were dancing.

There are times when you seem to be living out a dream. Not a fantasy, but something you wake from and question how your unconscious pulls out such vivid and random shit. The post-dinner party was a hazy dream filled with specific details. I danced my way back to cabin 25. I was in Montana. I was surrounded by high school friends — Sean, Brody, Jennifer, Caitlin — that had not been together for 15 years. I was drinking cans of Coors Light and sipping Woodbridge Pinot Grigio. I was eating peanut M&Ms and Jennifer had picked away all of the green ones. We were listening to Dylan. I was in pajamas, and we were playing “Marry, Fuck, Kill.”

* * *

The next morning came early. I slept next to Sean on a very aged pull-out bed that was not made for two drunk men. After sipping some morning coffee on the porch, the group made its way into town to throw some grease onto our hangovers. Lulu’s was a classic breakfast place with a laid-back mountain vibe that was true to its Montana roots. The kind of place with local art on the wall and homemade coffee mugs.

With no music, no booze and no partners to make comfortable, the playful conversation from the night before was replaced by seriousness. Caitlin’s dad was just diagnosed with emphysema, and Sean’s dad had a pacemaker. Between Brody and me there were two parents with Parkinson’s disease and two cancer surgeries. Jennifer’s mom had knee replacement surgery and Sean had to help his parents carry the groceries. My dad had just informed me that he had only a couple of “good years” left.

Care-free engagements had morphed into complicated marriages. Date nights had been replaced by diaper changes. Shared apartments became expensive mortgages. We had to think about school systems and retirement accounts, playgrounds and play dates. People had their own pets.

We had aged, but we didn’t always feel older. Our new responsibilities seemed like the inevitable product of time, not the result of deliberate choices. The faces around the table reminded us of when it was normal to admit that you weren’t exactly sure what you wanted, or where you wanted to be. Confession is easy when you are around old friends.

Breakfast ended when Caitlin got an e-mail to call work, which reminded Jennifer she should check in on her boys. Sean texted his wife, and I bought a postcard to send to my girlfriend back in Chicago. Brody posted a picture of us on Facebook.

After breakfast, a group of us took the 30-minute drive to Glacier National Park while the others got ready for the wedding. The day was clear and hot and wide. The Montana sky was blocked only by the large mountains that pierced the wispy clouds. Top down, in a red Mustang, we made our way up Highway 2 listening to Mumford & Sons.

The wind was too loud for talking, but our easy smiles said enough. We were far away from our lives back home; far from the traffic, the clutter and the grinding demands that make up so much of life. Far from the whirling pressure to have your shit together, at all times, in front of all people.

The Big Chill In Big Sky Country3

We took a short hike around Lake McDonald, the large turquoise lake at the south end of the park. I walked next to Jennifer up a small path towards a waterfall a half-mile up the trail. Our last hike together was 11 years ago as we camped along the Inca Trail on our way to Machu Picchu. I had long hair and a very questionable beard. It was the kind of beard that only makes sense when you are 22, and it covered more of my neck than my cheeks. I probably wore a bandana. I had been living in South America for three months as part of a research project. Jennifer had just graduated from college and was on her way to teach English for a year in Honduras. We had each walked a long road to Montana.

Sean and I were the last to leave for the wedding. Brody and the girls had headed out early to serve as the ceremony’s ushers. Our 45 minutes alone was spent drinking the first beer of the day and listening to Radiohead songs on the porch. We clinked bottles, knowingly toasting to drinking too much with old friends.

Raurie had arranged a bus to drive guests to the wedding location, a beautiful ranch about 15 minutes from the cabin. It was the kind of quiet bus ride to an event that stands in stark contrast to the loud drive home. The strangers that sat next to me would become my dance partners in a few hours.

Sean and I walked the grounds in the few moments we had before the wedding. The tall pine trees blocked the sky, leaving only small cracks for the sun’s rays. We came across an old pickup truck. It was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There was even hay in the truck’s bed. Sean had loved pickup trucks ever since his high school Dodge Ram and had made sure his son had a full stash of truck toys. I took a picture of Sean next to the truck so he could send it home. He knew his son would love to see it.

The wedding ceremony was conducted outdoors. Raurie and Jake stood in the center of a large circle of about a hundred guests. The officiant was the boss of their childhood camp, the man who had guided them when they were teenagers learning to paddle up a stream and portage over steep hills. Later, as counselors, they had met on the water, teaching canoe skills to high school campers. Their marriage was sealed by mixing cups of water from their home towns with water from the lake where they met.

Dinner was first and I sat next to Caitlin. During the toasts, Caitlin’s misty eyes looked back to Raurie. They had been friends since middle school and had shared the stories that shaped their life. Raurie was there when Caitlin’s dad moved out and Caitlin stood next to Raurie the night Burke died. When Raurie’s camp friends spoke, Caitlin remembered saying goodbye to Raurie before she left for the summer. When her cousins raised a glass, Caitlin knew the family lore. She was a part of every high school dalliance and took part in all the post-college wandering. Instinctually, my hand rubbed Caitlin’s back. There was an occasional shoulder squeeze and her one-off look that thanked me for knowing that even happy memories can make you sad.

But the best weddings are about the dancing, and this wedding was one of the best. The large barn adorning the property was made into a big dance hall. There was no band, not even a DJ, but the nostalgic dance mix forced everyone to the floor. Brody set the tone and created what would become the group’s go-to dance move of the night. Like a speed skater, Brody leaned forward and kicked each leg into the air. His arms rising above his head, alternating one by one towards the ceiling. His eyes were closed, and he was singing to the music that was blasting into the barn’s hot air.

The men soon stripped down to undershirts and the girls were barefoot. There was sweat — so much sweat — and we were dancing hard.  We were dancing to keep the night going, knowing that once we stopped, the night would end and we’d be forced back to our lives. We were dancing for each other and for the moment. We were dancing for a past that would never return.

Sean grabbed my shoulders and we bounced up and down to House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” Caitlin said she missed me as I twirled her to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Brody tried to teach me some kind of backwards body wave that made me look like an old woman trying to hula hoop. We all danced in a circle when Billie Jean came on.

When the sweat blurred my eyes, I could see Jennifer playing on our elementary school playground. I could see her dancing with her first boyfriend, John Johnson, at our first middle school dance. I could see Brody’s blue flannel shirt from high school and Caitlin’s goodbye party before college. I could see my post-college road trip with Sean through Colorado and the chocolate cake Jennifer ate when we were in Chile. On that dance floor, through all of the sweat and all of the wine, I could see most of my life.

* * *

Sean was wearing a sport coat and boxers when I woke up next to him early Sunday morning. Brody and Caitlin had to wake up at 6 a.m. to drive back to Spokane and we both promised to say goodbye. Brody was headed back to his music and his boyfriend in Brooklyn; Caitlin, to her husband and baby in D.C. The hugs were long. We were old enough to know that we shouldn’t promise to see one another soon.

After a quick goodbye with Jennifer that included the standard promises to schedule a dinner, Sean and I got back in the Yaris for the long drive to Calgary. We were feeling exceedingly average. Our mouths were dry from the beer and the altitude, our backs slightly bruised from the hard bar that supported the sofa bed. We were running on no more than three hours of sleep and we had over six hours of driving to do. We had to find a motel in Calgary and catch a 5 a.m. flight the next day.

We made our way back to Calgary through the vast expanse of southern British Columbia. The Yaris looked like a small horse making its way across the Mongolian Steppe. It was so quiet and so big and the world seemed so flat. The sky touched the earth in every direction.

There was no radio and we had no music. We only had one another. About four hours into the drive, after we had laughed about every story from the night before, we were quiet. Sean was in the passenger seat, looking out at the land. My eyes were on the road, my mind drifting between cabin 25 and the work that awaited me when I returned to Chicago. I broke the silence and asked Sean if he was excited to go home. He said he couldn’t wait to see his son and his wife. He was leaving for China in a week and felt bad that she was shouldering so much of the burden. He knew she needed sleep. He knew that he was going to be on the 2 a.m. shift with the baby for the week. He’d be changing a lot of diapers and would be “wiping a lot of ass.” I asked Sean if he liked having a baby. He said he loved it, but he wanted more time. He said he just needed so much more time.

Sean was nursing his hangover by drinking a large jug of water, and I had downed about three mugs of coffee. We pulled to the side of the road almost every 30 minutes for a pee break. About an hour outside of Calgary, the two lane road turned into a four-lane highway, making an emergency pullover impractical. But Sean had to pee, again, and I missed the last exit. He said he had to go an 8.5 on a scale of 10. He warned me not to try to make him laugh.

But old friends aren’t known for their sympathy in such circumstances, and I tried to make Sean pee by laughing as hard as I could. I was howling and telling Sean to relax and think of warm water. We went over a small bump and, like an unplugged spigot, Sean pissed himself. And after drinking about 100 ounces of water and a large cup of coffee, it wasn’t a small pee. Sean walked into the $60-a-night motel 15 miles outside of Calgary with a large circle of wetness covering his khaki shorts.

The 5 a.m. flight came very, very early. It was dark and cold outside when Sean filled up the Yaris with our final tank of gas. We barely spoke through airport security and we both instinctually flocked to the terminal’s lone Starbucks for our pre-flight coffee. We weren’t seated together during the flight, but it made little difference because we both slept most of the way.

We arrived in Chicago shortly before noon. We hopped on the El and made our way from O’Hare back into the Loop. Sean had forgotten his keys and was meeting his wife at her office so he could get back into the house. He had to be in the office by 2 p.m. so that he could lead a conference call with his team in London. I was on my way home to let the dog out and then I had to head into work to write a memo. When the doors opened at my stop, I gave Sean a big hug and thanked him for the weekend full of good memories. I said we should grab a beer on Friday, and I told him to give his son a kiss for me. I asked him to send me pictures and gave him one more hug. I’d see him again soon.

By Kevin Agnew

[Whitefish by TWBucknew/FlickrLake McDonald by Gabriel Amadeus/Flickr]


About the Author

kevinagnewbiophotoKevin Agnew is an attorney and a freelance writer who currently lives in Chicago. He writes about travel, politics, relationships and culture.

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